Ring attractor dynamics in the Drosophila central brain

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Science  26 May 2017:
Vol. 356, Issue 6340, pp. 849-853
DOI: 10.1126/science.aal4835

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Representing direction in the fly

A population of cells called compass neurons represents a fruitfly's heading direction. Kim et al. used imaging and optogenetics in behaving flies to elucidate the functional architecture of the underlying neuronal network. They observed local excitation and global inhibition between the compass neurons. The features of the network were best explained by a ring attractor network model. Until now, this hypothesized network structure has been difficult to demonstrate in a real brain.

Science, this issue p. 849


Ring attractors are a class of recurrent networks hypothesized to underlie the representation of heading direction. Such network structures, schematized as a ring of neurons whose connectivity depends on their heading preferences, can sustain a bump-like activity pattern whose location can be updated by continuous shifts along either turn direction. We recently reported that a population of fly neurons represents the animal’s heading via bump-like activity dynamics. We combined two-photon calcium imaging in head-fixed flying flies with optogenetics to overwrite the existing population representation with an artificial one, which was then maintained by the circuit with naturalistic dynamics. A network with local excitation and global inhibition enforces this unique and persistent heading representation. Ring attractor networks have long been invoked in theoretical work; our study provides physiological evidence of their existence and functional architecture.

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