Dragonflies Show Human-like Selective Attention
December 21, 2012

Dragonflies Capable Of ‘Locking On’ To Prey While Hunting

[ Watch the Video: Dragonfly on the Hunt ]

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Researchers from the University of Adelaide have uncovered the first evidence that invertebrates, like primates, have brain cells dedicated to the process of selective attention.

Writing in the journal Current Biology, Dr. Steven Wiederman and associate professor David O'Carroll from the university's Centre for Neuroscience Research describe how they were able to learn that dragonflies, when hunting prey, are capable of high level thought processes.

Wiederman and O'Carroll used a miniature glass probe with a tip that is approximately 1/1500th the width of a human air (60 nanometers wide) in order to detect the neuron activity in the brain of the insect which made this selective attention possible. While seeking food, a dragonfly that is presented with multiple visual targets is capable of mentally "locking on" to one and ignoring the others, the researchers explained.

"Selective attention is fundamental to humans' ability to select and respond to one sensory stimulus in the presence of distractions," Dr. Wiederman said in a statement Thursday. "Imagine a tennis player having to pick out a small ball from the crowd when it's traveling at almost 200kms an hour - you need selective attention in order to hit that ball back into play."

"Precisely how this works in biological brains remains poorly understood, and this has been a hot topic in neuroscience in recent years," he added. "The dragonfly hunts for other insects, and these might be part of a swarm - they're all tiny moving objects. Once the dragonfly has selected a target, its neuron activity filters out all other potential prey. The dragonfly then swoops in on its prey."

Dr. Wiederman says that dragonflies are able to select the correct target an astonishing 97-percent of the time, and O'Carroll adds that this is the first time that an invertebrate has overtly demonstrated human-like selective attention capability at the single neuron level.

"Recent studies reveal similar mechanisms at work in the primate brain, but you might expect it there. We weren't expecting to find something so sophisticated in lowly insects from a group that's been around for 325 million years," the associated professor added.

The discovery could prove invaluable in several fields, including neuroscience, mechanical engineering, and biological sciences, the researchers said. The dragonfly could potentially be used as a model for the development of robotic vision, and the brains of the creatures could help experts better understand how neural networks operate so that they could one day be simulated in intelligent machines.