MU researchers using fruit flies

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COLUMBIA - MU researchers have developed potential tools that could aid research for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

The researchers said the tools will advance fundamental brain research and potentially lead to advancing “deep brain stimulation” treatments used for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

The research team looks into an unexpected source of tools for studying the brain: fruit flies.

Researchers from Brandeis University raised the possibility of using a protein found in taste receptors of fruit flies as a tool in brain research, and now MU researchers are building on that research. 

"So currently all of the thermogenetic tools in use are derived from mammals and this protein is only found in fruit flies," said researcher Benton Berigan. "It gives the opportunity to have a entirely new class of proteins to be studied for their ability to be thermogenetic tools."

Identifying the special proteins would give scientists a better understanding of how neuronal circuits function, according to an MU professor of biological sciences, Dr. Troy Zars. Scientists may be able to use the special proteins to control cells in the brain.

"A powerful tool for a neuroscientist, is the ability to control individual cells by turning them on and turning them off," said Berigan. "So what we sought to do is just expand some of the tools that use temperature to also activate individual cells."

The hope for the future is that they may be able to use the same control process in other animals, including humans.

"In order to learn about how the neuron circuit affects causes these diseases and how the neuron cells communicate with each other, it's better to have external control of them," said one researcher, Marzi Amirshenava. "Then you can externally manipulate the cells in order to see the effect of those cells in the circuit."

The research for the protein is still in the early stages and is not yet being tested on humans.