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The tiny brain of a fly!

Drosophila brain [with green interneurons] By balapagos (Flickr CC)
Some people may have seen the image of a fruit fly brain published last month (January 2020), by C. Shan Xu, and a large number of coworkers, and picked up by many media outlets. The ‘map’ or 3-D graphic (see below) was compiled by a team of scientists, called FlyEM, from the company Google, and from the Janelia Research Campus at Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the USA. It is a ‘wiring diagram’ of the fly’s brain, or at least in a good chuck of it, showing ~25,000 neurons (brain cells) and more than twenty-million connections, or synapses. A so-called ‘functional connectome’ of the brain of Drosophila melanogaster.

The common fruit fly or vinegar fly, Drosophila melanogaster, is a tiny little fly, less than 2.5 mm in length (see below). Nevertheless, its complete central nervous system (CNS) has about 100,000 neurons and perhaps, 80-100 million connections between them.

Mating fruit flies – Drosophila sp. by Caramosca (Flickr CC)

These 100,000 nerve cells are packed into the brain of this fly, which is about the size of a poppy seed (or ∼8 × 107 μm3). It is worth keeping these numbers in mind when we come to compare it with the human brain.

Model of an entire Drosophila head. Different sub-structures of the brain and nervous system are color-coded (brain in blue). ZEISS Microscopy (Flicker CC)

The first ‘functional connectome’ of an animal ‘brain’ was achieved in 1986 for the much simpler creature: the nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans, which only has about 302 neurons in its nervous system, and some 7,600 synapses. So the connectome for Drosophila is a massive leap forward; from 7,600 connections in 1986, to 20 million connections in 2020. The synapses, or connections between the different brain cells, is what gives the nervous system its complexity. It is said that this is where memory is stored in humans.

Mechanisms of Mind logo – neurons by Paula Droege (Flickr Creative Commons)

The human brain has approximately 100 billion neurons and 1015 connections. That is 1,000,000,000,000,000 connections (apparently it is called a Quadrillion). The step up from 108 to 1015 is enormous, so one would assume that the human connectome is still a long way off. However, given the current rate of progress, I am confident that a complete ‘wiring diagram’ of the human brain, perhaps your brain (!) will happen some day.

Human brain by _DJ_ (Flickr CC).

The raison dêtre for doing this work, is that once you have a complete synaptic ‘wiring diagram’, it may be possible to determine the precise causes and controls of specific behaviours, for example by experimentally switching on and off individual neurons or neural circuits. Brave New World indeed!


Neuroscience – The largest and most detailed map of brain cells yet Science and technology


Zheng, Zhihao, et al. “A complete electron microscopy volume of the brain of adult Drosophila melanogaster.” Cell 174.3 (2018): 730-743.

Xu, C. Shan, et al. “A Connectome of the Adult Drosophila Central Brain.” bioRxiv (2020).

rcannon992 View All

I am an entomologist with a background in quarantine pests and invasive invertebrates. I studied zoology at Imperial College (University of London) and did a PhD on the population dynamics of a cereal aphid (Metopolophium dirhodum) in the UK. I spent 5 years with the British Antarctic Survey studing cold hardiness of Antarctic invertebates and 17 years with the Food and Environment Research Agency. My main interests now are natural history, photography, painting and bird watching.

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