Fruit flies hold the secrets to healing brain injury

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

fruit flies
Don’t mind him, he’s just a little out of it from being hit on the head a bunch of times. Right at the 50 yard line, too!

Have you ever forgotten about bananas in a fruit bowl, only to discover several tiny flies hovering around the yellow treats later? Yeah, I know fruit flies seem like unlikely heroes, but according to researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, these bugs have provided a ton of knowledge to science. Their latest contribution? Oh, you know, just saving athletes from brain damage!

No, these flies didn’t gear up with helmets and shoulder pads to take a tackle for football players. The thing is, their noggins are a lot like ours, only smaller, which makes them perfect for studying different brain conditions. “At a fundamental level, a brain cell is a brain cell,” explains geneticist Barry Ganetzky from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “If there’s some damage to it, it shouldn’t make any difference if that damage is occurring because it’s inside the head of a fly or inside the head of a human.” In this case, the researchers used fruit flies to study traumatic brain injury (TBI), which happens when a force causes the brain to bang against the skull.

The flies didn’t join any NFL players for a playoff game or anything to get their heads bashed, but they definitely took one for the team. In order to study TBIs, Ganetzky put several of the insects in vials and knocked them repeatedly against a foam pad! The force was about the same as a nurse taking a pulse on your wrist, which doesn’t seem like much, but for flies it was a real whack to the head.

Once they were thoroughly dazed, the researchers took a look at their brains and made some awesome discoveries. First of all, the results were really different from fly to fly, not only because of their age but also because of their genes. As professor David Wassarman explains, “The heart of the problem of solving traumatic brain injury is that we’re all different.”

“If we can really validate this as an appropriate model for humans, we can now start to screen for drugs” that might block damage, said Ganetzky. “We can begin to look for diagnostic markers, where you can actually measure something and not just say: Who’s the president and when were you born?”

Besides football players, the researchers also hope to aid individuals who suffer from TBIs such as car wreck victims, veterans, and employees injured on the job.

Image of fruit flies courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison.