Fruit flies have been instrumental to numerous groundbreaking scientific discoveries, but not because of their smarts. One of the quintessential model organisms for scientific research, fruit flies are usually just used in scientific studies for their bodies, but a recent study focused on the fruit fly mind-and showed that these bugs may be brainier than expected.

Scientists wanted to know whether fruit flies, specifically the common lab species Drosophila melanogaster, are aware of their own actions. To do that, they set the flies in front of a screen that displayed what is basically a virtual reality video game and monitored the activity of their teeny tiny brains, they report in the Journal of Neuroscience. Their results suggest that these small insects are actually self-aware.

"We found that when the fly is in control there is an increase in communication between brain regions, compared to when they are just responding to the very same visual stimuli replayed to them," senior study author Bruno van Swinderen of the University of Queensland's Brain Institute said in a statement.

This virtual reality "video game" was very simple, consisting of a dark bar that the fruit flies could control with their own movements. The researchers compared the flies' brain activity while they were controlling the bar's movement with their brain activity while they were presented with the same virtual reality scenario, but had no control over the bar's movement.

The increase in brain communication between brain regions that the researchers observed while the flies were controlling the video game suggests that they were devoting brain power to calculating their next move.

"It's really interesting that humans and flies share the ability to focus and have attention," van Swinderen said in a statement. "The difference is that we have around 100 billion neurons, and they only have 100,000 to do pretty much the same – focus on one thing at a time and select the best course of action."

Self-awareness is not the same as consciousness, it's actually a step above consciousness. The exact definitions aren't so clear cut, even among scientists, but the key difference is essentially that consciousness is the awareness of one's presence in one's environment, whereas self-awareness requires a deeper understanding of one's existence and role in that environment.

In this experiment, the flies showed that they not only seem to be self-aware, but they have distinct personalities, strengths, and weaknesses.

"There were actually some star performers that immediately understood whether they were in control or not, and some never seemed to know the difference," van Swinderen said in a statement.

Photo: eLife - the journal | Flickr

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