From Bees to Bionics

From Bees to Bionics: How studying insects can teach us about our own brains

The human brain is a complex thing.

Comprising nearly 90 billion cells (neurons) transmitting chemical or electrical information in fractions of a second through a network of around 100 trillion junctions (synapses), this one-and-a-half kilo lump of grey matter is capable of driving the most intricate of tasks, from building a rocket engine to composing a symphony. Much like the Human Genome Project of the 1990’s was seen as a crowning achievement in biology and medicine, mapping the human brain has long been considered a holy grail in the neuroscience field, with numerous multi-billion dollar projects currently seeking to crack the code and deliver a functional cheat-sheet for the mind. The EU-funded Human Brain Project in Switzerland seeks to understand how neural circuit organisation gives rise to behaviour and cognition using powerful supercomputers, while the U.S.-led BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) attempts to map the neuron activity of mice and other small mammals to achieve a ‘functional connectome’, or wiring diagram of neural connections in the brain.

While Australia doesn’t have the resources to commit billions of dollars to such large-scale projects, scientists here have adopted strategic interdisciplinary approaches to the study of the brain, involving research from healthcare, medicine, neuroscience, psychology, informatics, and broad international collaboration.

Brian Entler, American Fulbright Scholar from the University of Scranton, is currently being hosted by Macquarie University in Sydney, collaborating with like-minded researchers there. His team is led by Dr Andrew Barron, Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and Fulbright Alum (2001), and their innovative approach to brain-mapping involves the study of an unlikely character – the humble honey bee.

We spoke to Brian to get some insight into this intriguing collaboration.

Laboratory testing has been traditionally associated with rats and small mammals – why does your research here focus on insects?

“The main issue is scale – it’s much easier to map something on a smaller scale and apply the concepts to a bigger picture. Take the Human Genome Project for example; in the 70s and 80s, mapping the human genome was considered an informatic impossibility–we’re talking nearly a terabyte of information at a time when supercomputers would struggle to process even a fraction of that–so they started with a very simple organism with a very simple genome: the fruit-fly.

“Fruit-flies share nearly 60% of human genes, share the same wake-sleep cycles and have many similar biochemical pathways, hence were an ideal subject. Scientists successfully mapped the fruit fly genome within a decade, and it became the ‘gold standard’ for genomic research, eventually leading to a fully-mapped human genome within three years.

“Now (Dr Barron) and his collaborators had the same idea – why not start with something simple? Humans have about 86 billion neurons, whereas honeybees have around 960,000. What we’re doing here is putting together pieces, and then modelling these pieces into the larger connective map.”

Is there any reason why you’re studying honey bees in particular?

“Bees exhibit a social complexity that is far more relatable to humans than rats or mice. They also engage in complicated behaviours that demonstrate cognition and decision-making – I’m going to use the term ‘consciousness’. While we have some idea of the different areas, structures and functions of the brain, we still have only a vague understanding of how these interact to enable cognition. When we study bee interactions and behaviours, monitoring the connectivity of neurons, we begin to understand how these properties of a ‘consciousness’ emerge from such a simple brain.

“If you start basing models on behaviour, you can make things more complex; you can add in more cells, more layers of connection, and this can subsequently be applied to larger models in the overarching understanding of how the brain works.”

What is your role in this project?

“I’m working on visual learning in the honey bee, mapping the functions of three different structures that deal with vision and olfaction: the mushroom bodies, ventral lobes and the central complex.”

“At the moment we are micro-injecting procaine, a temporary local anaesthetic, into specific regions within the head capsule, then monitoring the bee within an automated learning chamber to measure things such as escape speed and avoidance behaviour. We can then determine exactly how these areas of the brain are involved in visual learning.”

How does this research relate to your work back at the University of Scranton?

“I’m looking to transition into the clinical realm; my dream has always been to conduct clinical addiction research. Everything I’ve learned here can be applied to larger organisms, and to model species such as rats, mice, and zebrafish. The techniques I’ve learned and refined through this work will be invaluable with future projects.”

Your research was recently picked up by various high-profile publications including the New York Times, Nature, and the Smithsonian Magazine. Can you elaborate on this research and how it relates to your current work?

“We were looking at the neurochemical effects of opiates on ants to see if we could prove addiction, with aims to eventually analyse what kind of social impact this has on the colony. Through my research into other invertebrate models of addiction, I heard about (Dr Barron’s) work on the social implications of honey bee addiction.

“Ants, like bees, are very social creatures, forming a complex, interdependent hierarchy, so there were many parallels between our research projects and methodology. My advisor at Scranton had actually met Andrew during his own Fulbright Scholarship, and he suggested we look into a collaboration.

“Our research was the first of its kind to demonstrate a drug dependency in invertebrates without a caloric reward, in other words, the ants were self-administering the opiate without the incentive of sugar.

“Through this kind of study, we can discover the areas of the brain that are affected by a drug dependency, and learn how to develop localised treatments or medications. I believe that within our lifetimes, we will see a vaccination for certain types of addiction.

“Of course, this raises ethical and philosophical questions about self-determination and nature versus nurture, but these are discussions for another day.”

Implications

Certainly there are ethical and philosophical implications with such in-depth dissection of the brain. With a comprehensive knowledge of the human mind comes incredible power – the ability to alter specific areas of the brain with precision, control behaviours, even manipulate thoughts and memories; concepts that were, until only recently considered science fiction.
With understanding also comes the ability to create and synthesise. Once the brain has been mapped, it is theoretically possible to create a bionic brain and simulate human, and even post-human, intelligence.

Popular culture has often delved into hypothetical futures where artificial intelligence has transcended that of its creator. Terminator’s Skynet and 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL showed us the horrors of calculating, malevolent machine thinking; OS1 from Spike Jonze’s Her provided a haunting glimpse at the infinite potential of A.I. that has the capacity to learn and evolve autonomously.
Despite these profound implications and fictional dramatisations, humans are characterised by our eternal hunger for knowledge, our drive to understand everything about ourselves and the world around us.

Concepts of mapping the brain, simulating intelligence, and creating new entities in our likeness are not questions of if but when.
The responsibility associated with this is colossal, but the possibilities are endless – the ability to treat cognitive disorders, addiction, Alzheimer’s Disease with pinpoint accuracy; the capability to restore or redirect neurons that have been affected by brain damage; the capacity for your laptop to think and learn; the potential for Apple’s Siri to do more than just Google-search a series of misheard phrases.

The prospects are truly thought-provoking. The human brain is, indeed, a complex thing, but with scientists like Andrew Barron and Brian Entler putting the pieces together, the puzzle may soon be solved.