Why Do We Freeze When Startled? New Study in Flies Points to Serotonin
Videos of flies (5x speed) using FlyWalker, a program that enables scientists to label and track the position of each of the fly’s footfalls, thereby building a high-resolution picture of it’s walking gait. Top: normal fly walking at around 25 mm/s. Bottom: fly with its VNC serotonin neurons stimulated, which slows its speed to 15 mm/s (Credit: Clare Howard/Mann lab/Columbia's Zuckerman Institute)
A Columbia University study in fruit flies has identified serotonin as a chemical that triggers the body’s startle response, the automatic deer-in-the-headlights reflex that freezes the body momentarily in response to a potential threat. Today’s study reveals that when a fly experiences an unexpected change to its surroundings, such as a sudden vibration, release of serotonin helps to literally — and temporarily — stop the fly in its tracks.
These findings, recently published in Current Biology , offer broad insight into the biology of the startle response, a ubiquitous, yet mysterious, phenomenon that has been observed in virtually every animal studied to date, from flies to fish to people.
“Imagine sitting in your living room with your family and — all of a sudden — the lights go out, or the ground begins to shake,” said Richard Mann , PhD, a principal investigator at Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute and the paper’s senior author. “Your response, and that of your family, will be the same: You will stop, freeze and then move to safety. With this study, we show in flies that a rapid release of the chemical serotonin in their nervous system drives that initial freeze. And because serotonin also exists in people, these findings shed light on what may be going on when we get startled as well.”
In the brain, serotonin is most closely associated with regulating mood and emotion. But previous research on flies and vertebrates has shown it can also affect the speed of an animal’s movement. The Columbia researchers’ initial goal was to more fully understand how the chemical accomplished this.
Dr. Mann, who also is the Higgins Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics (in Systems Biology ) at Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons , has long studied the fruit fly. Compared to humans or even mice, the fruit fly bears several advantages. For one, its genome has been largely decoded; scientists know the function of many of its approximately 17,000 genes. They can also manipulate how, where and when a gene is turned on. From that information figure out how genes affect a fly’s growth and development. As a principal investigator at the Zuckerman Institute, Dr. Mann studies the motor neuron, a type of brain cell that stimulates muscle movement.
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