How to Drive a Cockroach: Scientists Discover Key Neurons that Control Movement

First Posted: Oct 26, 2015 08:31 AM EDT

Scientists may have found the key to mind controlling a cockroach. They've identified neurons in a cockroach's brain that control whether the insect walks slow or fast, turns right or left, or downshifts to climb.

"The central complex appears to be an area of the insect brain that monitors many forms of sensory information as well as the insect's internal stat, and then influences various forms of movement," said Roy Ritzmann, one of the researchers, in a news release.

In order to better understand how insects control movement, the researchers inserted tiny wires in the central complex of 27 free-walking cockroaches. Then, they recorded the neuronal activity of the insects and also videotaped them. The electrodes were placed in an area of the brain that responds to antennal and visual inputs, which are essential for navigating.

"The neural activity is generated in the center of the cockroach brain," said Joshua Martin, one of the researchers. "The outputs from the central complex are sent to the motor center in the thoracic ganglia-its version of the spinal cord-and on to the limbs."

The researchers matched a statistical model of how neurons generate spikes to the neuronal activity recorded. They then used high-speed video to backtrack and match the insect's movement around the time of the neuronal spike. In the end, they separated the signals for different speeds and turn directions.

In fact, when the scientists passed electrical current through the same electrodes that recorded activity, different ensembles of neurons were activated and the cockroach repeated what had been spontaneous movements.

Currently, the researchers are looking further into how the central complex changes to adapt movement to the needs of the animal, which may reveal how other species of insects function.

The findings are published in the journal Current Biology.

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