Right now your brain is processing gigabytes of information about your surroundings – colors, shapes, smells, sounds, shadows, textures – to determine what is worthy of your attention. Perception is so automatic that you don’t need to think about it. It is intuitive and unconscious. Yet the most sophisticated human-engineered systems can’t do it. What if we could understand exactly how the brain processes reality within individual cells? That knowledge could be used to enable science fiction-style breakthroughs like prosthetic limbs that converse with the brain, or search robots that smell as well as a bloodhound, or an implantable chip that repairs blindness. The first step toward these transformative inventions is to ‘reverse-engineer’ the neural technology that evolution has honed over billions of years.
Mark Frye’s research is shedding light on the brain’s astonishing skills of perception. Combining tools from biology and engineering, like genetics, brain imaging and virtual reality simulators for fruit flies, Frye is investigating how the brain perceives the world while it’s doing it. Why fruit flies? Well, those little bugs that eat your old bananas actually perceive the world much in the same way humans do. Yet their brains have orders of magnitude fewer cells than ours, and scientists have invented ways to precisely control the genes and molecules underlying brain function. Frye’s research is unique in that he is monitoring the brain while the fly actively perceives its environment in real time. He can watch neurons fire in response to, say, a new smell or the movement of an object in the animal’s visual field, and then directly connect the cellular response to changes in the animal’s attention. In doing so, he is discovering the cellular building blocks of perception.
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