Bruno van Swinderen heads the Drosophila research group at the Queensland Brain Institute, The University of Queensland. The group combines expertise in electrophysiology, behaviour, and molecular genetics to understand fundamental brain mechanisms.
The main research focus of the laboratory is to understand stimulus suppression mechanisms. These mechanisms pertain to our ability to pay attention, but also to how we are able to suppress stimuli during sleep, or how this can be induced with drugs such as general anaesthetics.
1. Selective attention: The laboratory conducts basic work employing high-throughput behavioural screening, electrophysiology, and molecular genetics to uncover fundamental mechanisms of visual selective attention. Using these approaches, we have found that methylphenidate can correct attention deficits in a fly model of ADHD. The work was published in 2010 in Journal of Neuroscience, and builds on an earlier paradigm published in Science. We have recently improved and automated a device to screen Drosophila for attention-like behaviours following genetic, behavioural, or pharmacological interventions. We have also devised novel ways of recording from multiple sites across the fly brain as it performs attention-like tasks (J Neurophys., 2013).
2. General anaesthesia: The mechanism of general anaesthesia remains unknown, despite over 150 years since we began using these drugs for surgery. The reason the mechanism as remained so difficult to tackle probably lies in its complexity, and the fact that few models exist where one can proceed from designing molecular changes to testing clinically-relevant behavioural and electrophysiological endpoints all in the same model organism. We have found that sleep/wake circuits in the fly brain control sensitivity to general anesthetics (Curr. Biol, 2013). We are also focusing on a synaptic hypothesis of general anesthesia, and finding resistant mutant strains that we hope will translate to a better understanding of the mechanism and the design of potential target molecules.
3. Sleep: Although everyone spends about a third of their life sleeping, the function of sleep remains mysterious. Sleep deprivation is an increasing concern in modern societies, and deleterious effects of sleep deprivation on attention and performance can be as tragic as the consequences of excessive alcohol consumption. We have developed sleep models in Drosophila melanogaster, and are investigating how sleep and attention are mechanistically related in the fly brain. We are currently working on models to induce sleep on demand. We have also discovered different levels of sleep intensity in Drosophila, and hypothesize that these accomplish distinct functions (J. Neurosci, 2013).