How The Brain Turns on Innate Behavior

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Brain and Behavior

UCR researchers have made a major leap forward in understanding how the brain programs innate behavior. The discovery could have future applications in engineering new behaviors in animals and intelligent robots.

Innate or "instinctive" behaviors are inborn and do not require learning or prior experience to be performed. Examples include courtship and sexual behaviors, escape and defensive maneuvers, and aggression.

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Using the common fruit fly as a model organism, the researchers found through laboratory experiments that the innate behavior is initiated by a "command" hormone that orchestrates activities in discrete groups of peptide neurons in the brain. Peptide neurons are brain cells that release small proteins to communicate with other brain cells and the body.

The researchers report that the command hormone, called ecdysis-triggering hormone or ETH, activates discrete groups of brain peptide neurons in a stepwise manner, making the fruit fly perform a well-defined sequence of behaviors. The researchers propose that similar mechanisms could account for innate behaviors in other animals and even humans.

Study results appear as the cover article in this week's issue of Current Biology.

"To our knowledge, we are the first to describe how a circulating hormone turns on sequential steps of an innate behavior by inducing programmed release of brain chemicals," said Young-Joon Kim, a postgraduate researcher in UCR's Department of Entomology working with Michael Adams, professor of cell biology and neuroscience and professor of entomology, and the first author of the paper. "It is well known that such behaviors

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