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How a fly’s neural compass adapts to an ever-changing world
Two studies in flies reveal the mechanism by which the brain’s directional system learns to align information about self-orientation with environmental landmarks — a process crucial for accurate navigation.
Malcolm G. Campbell is in the Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, California 94305, USA, and in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
As everyone knows, a good sense of direction is needed to successfully navigate the world. In mammals, this ‘sense’ involves neurons called head-direction cells. Each such cell becomes most active when the animal faces a particular direction relative to landmarks in its environment. Together, the cells’ activity indicates which direction the animal is facing in at any given moment. In 2015, it emerged that fruit flies, which are much easier than mammals to study experimentally, have strikingly similar cells, called heading neurons1. Writing in Nature, Fisher et al.2 and Kim et al.3 now build on this discovery to tackle a decades-old problem: how does this type of neuron respond to the locations of landmarks in a manner that is stable enough to be reliable, but flexible enough to allow adaptation to new environments?