All publications

Trapping of Syntaxin1a in Presynaptic Nanoclusters by a Clinically Relevant General Anesthetic.

2018 Cell Reports

Bademosi, AT, Steeves, J, Karunanithi, S, Gormal, RS, Liu, S, Lauwers, E, Verstreken, P, Anggono, V, Meunier, FA & van Swinderen, B


Propofol is the most commonly used general anesthetic in humans. Our understanding of its mechanism of action has focused on its capacity to potentiate inhibitory systems in the brain. However, it is unknown whether other neural mechanisms are involved in general anesthesia. Here, we demonstrate that the synaptic release machinery is also a target. Using single-particle tracking photoactivation localization microscopy, we show that clinically relevant concentrations of propofol and etomidate restrict syntaxin1A mobility on the plasma membrane, whereas non-anesthetic analogs produce the opposite effect and increase syntaxin1A mobility. Removing the interaction with the t-SNARE partner SNAP-25 abolishes propofol-induced syntaxin1A confinement, indicating that syntaxin1A and SNAP-25 together form an emergent drug target. Impaired syntaxin1A mobility and exocytosis under propofol are both rescued by co-expressing a truncated syntaxin1A construct that interacts with SNAP-25. Our results suggest that propofol interferes with a step in SNARE complex formation, resulting in non-functional syntaxin1A nanoclusters.

Oscillatory brain activity in spontaneous and induced sleep stages in flies. 

2017 Nature Communications

Melvyn Yap, Martyna Grabowska, Chelsie Rohrscheib, Rhiannon Jeans, Michael Troup, Angelique Paulk, Bart van Alphen, Paul Shaw & van Swinderen, B


Sleep is a dynamic process comprising multiple stages, each associated with distinct electrophysiological properties and potentially serving different functions. While these phenomena are well described in vertebrates, it is unclear if invertebrates have distinct sleep stages. We perform local field potential (LFP) recordings on flies spontaneously sleeping, and compare their brain activity to flies induced to sleep using either genetic activation of sleep-promoting circuitry or the GABAAagonist Gaboxadol. We find a transitional sleep stage associated with a 7–10 Hz oscillation in the central brain during spontaneous sleep. Oscillatory activity is also evident when we acutely activate sleep-promoting neurons in the dorsal fan-shaped body (dFB) of Drosophila. In contrast, sleep following Gaboxadol exposure is characterized by low-amplitude LFPs, during which dFB-induced effects are suppressed. Sleep in flies thus appears to involve at least two distinct stages: increased oscillatory activity, particularly during sleep induction, followed by desynchronized or decreased brain activity.

Transient Dysregulation of Dopamine Signaling in a Developing Drosophila Arousal Circuit Permanently Impairs Behavioral Responsiveness in Adults.

2017 Frontiers in Psychiatry

Ferguson, L, Petty, A, Rhorscheib, C, Troup, M, Kirszenblat, L, Eyeles, DW & van Swinderen, B

2017 Frontiers in Psychiatry


The dopamine ontogeny hypothesis for schizophrenia proposes that transient dysregulation of the dopaminergic system during brain development increases the likelihood of this disorder in adulthood. To test this hypothesis in a high-throughput animal model, we have transiently manipulated dopamine signaling in the developing fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster and examined behavioral responsiveness in adult flies. We found that either a transient increase of dopamine neuron activity or a transient decrease of dopamine receptor expression during fly brain development permanently impairs behavioral responsiveness in adults. A screen for impaired responsiveness revealed sleep-promoting neurons in the central brain as likely postsynaptic dopamine targets modulating these behavioral effects. Transient dopamine receptor knockdown during development in a restricted set of ~20 sleep-promoting neurons recapitulated the dopamine ontogeny phenotype, by permanently reducing responsiveness in adult animals. This suggests that disorders involving impaired behavioral responsiveness might result from defective ontogeny of sleep/wake circuits.

In vivo single-molecule imaging of syntaxin1A reveals polyphosphoinositide- and activity-dependent trapping in presynaptic nanoclusters.

2017 Nature Communications

Bademosi, AT, Lauwers, E, Padmanabhan, P, Odierna, L, Chai, YJ, Papadopulos, A, Verstreken, P, van Swinderen, B, Meunier, FA

Abstract - 

Syntaxin1A is organized in nanoclusters that are critical for the docking and priming of secretory vesicles from neurosecretory cells. Whether and how these nanoclusters are affected by neurotransmitter release in nerve terminals from a living organism is unknown. Here we imaged photoconvertible syntaxin1A-mEos2 in the motor nerve terminal of Drosophila larvae by single-particle tracking photoactivation localization microscopy. Opto- and thermo-genetic neuronal stimulation increased syntaxin1A-mEos2 mobility, and reduced the size and molecular density of nanoclusters, suggesting an activity-dependent release of syntaxin1A from the confinement of nanoclusters. Syntaxin1A mobility was increased by mutating its polyphosphoinositide-binding site or preventing SNARE complex assembly via co-expression of tetanus toxin light chain. In contrast, syntaxin1A mobility was reduced by preventing SNARE complex disassembly. Our data demonstrate that polyphosphoinositide favours syntaxin1A trapping, and show that SNARE complex disassembly leads to syntaxin1A dissociation from nanoclusters. Lateral diffusion and trapping of syntaxin1A in nanoclusters therefore dynamically regulate neurotransmitter release.

Evidence for selective attention in the insect brain.

2016 Current Opinion in Insect Science

de Bivort, BL & van Swinderen, B

Abstract - 

The capacity for selective attention appears to be required by any animal responding to an environment containing multiple objects, although this has been difficult to study in smaller animals such as insects. Clear operational characteristics of attention however make study of this crucial brain function accessible to any animal model. Whereas earlier approaches have relied on freely behaving paradigms placed in an ecologically relevant context, recent tethered preparations have focused on brain imaging and electrophysiology in virtual reality environments. Insight into brain activity during attention-like behavior has revealed key elements of attention in the insect brain. Surprisingly, a variety of brain structures appear to be involved, suggesting that even in the smallest brains attention might involve widespread coordination of neural activity.

What is unconsciousness in a fly or worm? A review of general anesthesia in different animal models.

2016 Conciousness and Cognition

Zalucki, O & van Swinderen, B

Abstract - 

All animals are rendered unresponsive by general anesthetics. In humans, this is observed as a succession of endpoints from memory loss to unconsciousness to immobility. Across animals, anesthesia endpoints such as loss of responsiveness or immobility appear to require significantly different drug concentrations. A closer examination in key model organisms such as the mouse, fly, or the worm, uncovers a trend: more complex behaviors, either requiring several sub-behaviors, or multiple neural circuits working together, are more sensitive to volatile general anesthetics. This trend is also evident when measuring neural correlates of general anesthesia. Here, we review this complexity hypothesis in humans and model organisms, and attempt to reconcile these findings with the more recent view that general anesthetics potentiate endogenous sleep pathways in most animals. Finally, we propose a presynaptic mechanism, and thus an explanation for how these drugs might compromise a succession of brain functions of increasing complexity.

The Yin and Yang of Sleep and Attention.

2015 Trends in Neurosciences

Kirszenblat, L & van Swinderen, B

Abstract - 

Sleep is not a single state, but a complex set of brain processes that supports several physiological needs. Sleep deprivation is known to affect attention in many animals, suggesting that a key function of sleep is to regulate attention. Conversely, tasks that require more attention drive sleep need and sleep intensity. Attention involves the ability to filter incoming stimuli based on their relative salience, and this is likely to require coordinated synaptic activity across the brain. This capacity may have only become possible with the evolution of related neural mechanisms that support two key sleep functions: stimulus suppression and synaptic plasticity. We argue here that sleep and attention may have coevolved as brain states that regulate each other.

Using an abstract geometry in virtual reality to explore choice behaviour: visual flicker preferences in honeybees.

2015 Journal of Experimental Biology

Van De Poll, MN, Zajaczkowski, EL, Taylor, GJ, Srinivasan, MV & van Swinderen, B

Abstract - 

Closed-loop paradigms provide an effective approach to studying visual choice behaviour and attention in small animals. Different flying and walking paradigms have been developed to investigate behavioural and neuronal responses to competing stimuli in insects such as bees and flies. However, the variety of stimulus choices that can be presented over one experiment is often limited. Current choice paradigms are mostly constrained as single binary choice scenarios that are influenced by the linear structure of classical conditioning paradigms. Here, we present a novel behavioural choice paradigm that allows animals to explore a closed geometry of interconnected binary choices by repeatedly selecting among competing objects, thereby revealing stimulus preferences in an historical context. We employed our novel paradigm to investigate visual flicker preferences in honeybees (Apis mellifera), and found significant preferences for 20-25Hz flicker and avoidance of higher (50-100Hz) and lower (2-4Hz) flicker frequencies. Similar results were found when bees were presented with three simultaneous choices instead of two, and when they were given the chance to select previously rejected choices. Our results show that honeybees can discriminate among different flicker frequencies, and that their visual preferences are persistent even under different experimental conditions. Interestingly, avoided stimuli were more attractive if they were novel, suggesting that novelty salience can override innate preferences. Our recursive virtual reality environment provides a new approach to studying visual discrimination and choice behaviour in behaving animals.

Closed-Loop Behavioral Control Increases Coherence in the Fly Brain.

2015 Journal of Neuroscience

Paulk, AC, Kirszenblat, L, Zhou, Y & van Swinderen, B

Abstract - 

A crucial function of the brain is to be able to distinguish whether or not changes in the environment are caused by one's own actions. Even the smallest brains appear to be capable of making this distinction, as has been shown by closed-loop behavioral experiments in flies controlling visual stimuli in virtual reality paradigms. We questioned whether activity in the fruit fly brain is different during such closed-loop behavior, compared with passive viewing of a stimulus. To address this question, we used a procedure to record local field potential (LFP) activity across the fly brain while flies were controlling a virtual object through their movement on an air-supported ball. The virtual object was flickered at a precise frequency (7 Hz), creating a frequency tag that allowed us to track brain responses to the object while animals were behaving. Following experiments under closed-loop control, we replayed the same stimulus to the fly in open loop, such that it could no longer control the stimulus. We found identical receptive fields and similar strength of frequency tags across the brain for the virtual object under closed loop and replay. However, when comparing central versus peripheral brain regions, we found that brain responses were differentially modulated depending on whether flies were in control or not. Additionally, coherence of LFP activity in the brain increased when flies were in control, compared with replay, even if motor behavior was similar. This suggests that processes associated with closed-loop control promote temporal coordination in the insect brain.

Syntaxin1A-mediated Resistance and Hypersensitivity to Isoflurane in Drosophila melanogaster.

2015 Anesthesiology

Zalucki, OH, Menon, H, Kottler, B, Faville, R, Day, R, Bademosi, AT, Lavidis, N, Karunanithi, S & van Swinderen, B

Abstract - 

Recent evidence suggests that general anesthetics activate endogenous sleep pathways, yet this mechanism cannot explain the entirety of general anesthesia. General anesthetics could disrupt synaptic release processes, as previous work in Caenorhabditis elegans and in vitro cell preparations suggested a role for the soluble NSF attachment protein receptor protein, syntaxin1A, in mediating resistance to several general anesthetics. The authors questioned whether the syntaxin1A-mediated effects found in these reductionist systems reflected a common anesthetic mechanism distinct from sleep-related processes. Using the fruit fly model, Drosophila melanogaster, the authors investigated the relevance of syntaxin1A manipulations to general anesthesia. The authors used different behavioral and electrophysiological endpoints to test the effect of syntaxin1A mutations on sensitivity to isoflurane. The authors found two syntaxin1A mutations that confer opposite general anesthesia phenotypes: syxH3-C, a 14-amino acid deletion mutant, is resistant to isoflurane (n = 40 flies), and syxKARRAA, a strain with two amino acid substitutions, is hypersensitive to the drug (n = 40 flies). Crucially, these opposing effects are maintained across different behavioral endpoints and life stages. The authors determined the isoflurane sensitivity of syxH3-C at the larval neuromuscular junction to assess effects on synaptic release. The authors find that although isoflurane slightly attenuates synaptic release in wild-type animals (n = 8), syxH3-C preserves synaptic release in the presence of isoflurane (n = 8). The study results are evidence that volatile general anesthetics target synaptic release mechanisms; in addition to first activating sleep pathways, a major consequence of these drugs may be to decrease the efficacy of neurotransmission.

Taking a new look at how flies learn.

2014 eLife

Kottler, B & van Swinderen, B

Abstract - 

Learning based on what a fruit fly sees or what it smells might not involve distinct parts of the brain, as was previously thought.

Drosophila strategies to study psychiatric disorders.

2013 Brain Research Bulletin

van Alphen, B & van Swinderen, B

Abstract - 

For decades, Drosophila melanogaster has been used as a model organism to study human diseases, ranging from heart disease to cancer to neurological disorders [9]. For studying neurodegenerative diseases, Drosophila has been instrumental in understanding disease mechanisms and pathways as well as being an efficient tool in drug discovery studies. For some better-understood disorders, such as Fragile X (a mental retardation syndrome), clinical trials are being run, based in part on translational work in flies and rodents. However, Drosophila is currently less used to study psychiatric disorders such as autism, schizophrenia and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), despite numerous discoveries of disease susceptibility genes that could be explored by reverse genetics or miss-expression studies. This deficit might be explained by (1) a lack of reliable tests to study more complex disease (endo)phenotypes in flies, (2) difficulties in translating disease symptoms into animal models and (3) the polygenetic nature of these diseases. In this review we discuss strategies to use D. melanogaster to study complex psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, autism and ADHD. Two common features of these diseases may be defective sleep and attention mechanisms, hence calling for better methods for quantifying and screening arousal thresholds in flies.

Dopamine in Drosophila: setting arousal thresholds in a miniature brain.

2011 Proceedings of the Royal Society

van Swinderen, B & Andretic, R

Abstract - 

In mammals, the neurotransmitter dopamine (DA) modulates a variety of behaviours, although DA function is mostly associated with motor control and reward. In insects such as the fruitfly, Drosophila melanogaster, DA also modulates a wide array of behaviours, ranging from sleep and locomotion to courtship and learning. How can a single molecule play so many different roles? Adaptive changes within the DA system, anatomical specificity of action and effects on a variety of behaviours highlight the remarkable versatility of this neurotransmitter. Recent genetic and pharmacological manipulations of DA signalling in Drosophila have launched a surfeit of stories-each arguing for modulation of some aspect of the fly's waking (and sleeping) life. Although these stories often seem distinct and unrelated, there are some unifying themes underlying DA function and arousal states in this insect model. One of the central roles played by DA may involve perceptual suppression, a necessary component of both sleep and selective attention.

Attention-like deficit and hyperactivity in a Drosophila memory mutant.

2010 Journal of Neuroscience

van Swinderen, B & Brembs, B

Abstract - 

The primary function of a brain is to produce adaptive behavioral choices by selecting the right action at the right time. In humans, attention determines action selection as well as memory formation, whereas memories also guide which external stimuli should be attended to (Chun and Turk-Browne, 2007). The complex codependence of attention, memory, and action selection makes approaching the neurobiological basis of these interactions difficult in higher animals. Therefore, a successful reductionist approach is to turn to simpler systems for unraveling such complex biological problems. In a constantly changing environment, even simple animals have evolved attention-like processes to effectively filter incoming sensory stimuli. These processes can be studied in the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, by a variety of behavioral and electrophysiological techniques. Recent work has shown that mutations affecting olfactory memory formation in Drosophila also produce distinct defects in visual attention-like behavior (van Swinderen, 2007; van Swinderen et al., 2009). In this study, we extend those results to describe visual attention-like defects in the Drosophila memory consolidation mutant radish(1). In both behavioral and brain-recording assays, radish mutant flies consistently displayed responses characteristic of a reduced attention span, with more frequent perceptual alternations and more random behavior compared with wild-type flies. Some attention-like defects were successfully rescued by administering a drug commonly used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in humans, methylphenidate. Our results suggest that a balance between persistence and flexibility is crucial for adaptive action selection in flies and that this balance requires radish gene function.