A fruit fly like those used in the study (Photo: Andre Karwath)
As anyone who has ever tried to swat a fly will know, the little beasties have almost impossibly-fast reflexes. It turns out, in fact, that they have a response time faster than that of any computer. If only we knew what their secret was, perhaps we could develop robots that could react just as quickly. Well, scientists at Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology are working on it. Since 1956, a mathematical model has existed that accurately predicts how a fly’s brain will recognize and process visual movements. What hasn’t been understood is how the individual nerve cells interact, to make that recognition and processing possible. Given that a fly’s tiny brain contains over 100,000 nerve cells per cubic millimeter, it would seem impossible to observe the reactions of any one of those cells. That, however, is just what the German scientists have done.