Leonie Kirszenblat

I have always been curious about how the brain perceives its environment, and how it can switch dramatically between attending to and ignoring its surroundings. I am also interested in sleep, a state which suppresses our awareness of the outside world.   Like us, the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster sleeps and pays attention, and owing to its genetic tractability provides an ideal system for understanding the basis of these phenomena.  During my PhD I developed novel methods to study sleep and attention in flies, and investigated how these two perceptual states influence each other. I am pursuing these research questions in my current role as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow, with a focus on understanding the molecular mechanisms by which sleep rewires the brain to improve attention.

Research Background / Work Experience

Having a background in genetics, I came to neuroscience through the back door. I gradually worked my way up the evolutionary tree, beginning my research career by studying a fungus, then moving to worms, and finally to flies.

I had my first taste of research in 2006 during my Honours year at The University of Melbourne in the lab of A/Prof. Alex Andrianopoulos, where I researched an infectious fungus called Penicillin marneffei.  Penicillin marneffei causes lethal systemic infection, most commonly in HIV-positive individuals, and is a major health problem in Southeast Asia.  Penicillin marneffei is ‘dimorphic’ as it can switch from being a fungus into an infectious yeast.  During my Honours I contributed to a study in which we discovered genes that are essential for converting this fungus into its pathogenic yeast form.

In 2007, I moved to Brisbane where I took on a Research Assistant position in the lab of A/Prof Massimo Hilliard at the Queensland Brain Institute (The University of Queensland).  Here, I used the genetic model organism, Caenorhabditis elegans (a roundworm), to investigate genes regulating the development and regenerative capacity of neurons. We identified ligands and their receptor molecules that coordinate the development of dendrites, the sensory processes of neurons.  We also found that a different type of molecule that forms a structural component of cells, called a microtubule, determined how many axons (nerve processes) a neuron developed.  Interestingly, the same molecule seemed to be crucial for the ability of a neuron to regenerate following nerve injury.

In 2011, I started my PhD in the lab of A/Prof Bruno van Swinderen, using fruit flies as a model organism to study sleep and attention. This involved working with my colleagues to develop novel methods to study sleep in flies, leading us to discover that flies have a ‘deep sleep’ stage (that may be akin to deep sleep in humans).  We are also continuing to work with our collaborator A/Prof Paul Shaw (Washington University) to investigate the exciting possibility of using sleep as a therapeutic to improve cognition.  Recently, we found that increasing sleep could restore memory to mutants with learning deficits.

I am particularly interested in selective attention processes in the brain, and how they might be fine-tuned by sleep. In order to study attention-like behaviour, we developed a novel method to record from the brains of flies as they moved inside a virtual reality. Interestingly, we found that neural activity became more tightly coordinated between different brain regions when the fly was in control of its visual surroundings (and therefore more likely to be paying attention to them), compared to when it passively viewed the same scenes.

In my current role as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow I am further investigating the relationship between attention and sleep.  I am using a variety of genetic, microscopy and brain imaging techniques to understand how sleep drives brain plasticity to optimise attention, and vice versa – how paying attention during wake may drive our need for sleep.

Scientific community engagement

I enjoy talking about science to the broader community, including primary-school students, high-school students, and the general public.  From 2008-2016, I was a volunteer at the Australian Brain Bee Challenge, a program that gets high-school students excited about neuroscience.  In 2013-2014 I was an organising committee member for an international conference on consciousness (The 18th Meeting for the Scientific Study of Consciousness), held in Brisbane. In conjunction with the conference, we organised a public lecture on consciousness at the State Library of Queensland.  Last year I became a Young Science Ambassador for the Wonder of Science program, which promotes the wonder and excitement of science to primary-school and high-school students all over Queensland (with a focus on rural, remote and Indigenous communities).

One of the most rewarding aspects of being a scientist is communicating our research to people who have little knowledge of the field, such as friends, relatives or neighbours. Science is exciting because you never know what discovery might be around the corner, and seeing that excitement and curiosity being transmitted to someone else is always inspiring.

I have also presented my work to other scientists by giving talks and participating in a panel discussion at 5 international and 4 national conferences (for details, see my CV below).

Curriculum vitae: LeonieKirszenblatCV_2017


Ferguson, L., Petty, A., Rohrscheib, C., Troup, M., Kirszenblat, L., Eyles, D.W., van Swinderen, B. (2017) Transient dysregulation of dopamine signaling in a developing Drosophila arousal circuit permanently impairs behavioural responsiveness in adults. Frontiers in Psychiatry8 FEB: . doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2017.00022

Kirszenblat, Leonie (2016). Visual attention and sleep homeostasis in Drosophila. PhD Thesis, Queensland Brain Institute, The University of Queensland. doi:10.14264/uql.2016.247

Kirszenblat, L. & van Swinderen, B.  The yin and yang of sleep and attention. (2015) Trends In Neurosciences, 38(12):776-786.

Paulk, A.C.*, Kirszenblat, L.* , Zhou, Y, van Swinderen, B.   Closed-loop behavioural control increases coherence the fly brain.  (2015) The Journal of Neuroscience 35(28):10304-10315 *equal contribution

Dissel, S.A., Veena,A.., Kirszenblat, L., Suzuki, Y;  Donlea, J., Klose, M., Koch, Z., English, D., Winsky-Sommerer,R., Swinderen, B. and Shaw,P. (2015). Sleep restores behavioural plasticity to Drosophila mutants. Current biology, 25(10): 1270-1281.

Larkin, A., Chen, Ming-Yu., Kirszenblat, L., Reinhard, J., van Swinderen, B. Claudianos, C. Neurexin-1 regulates sleep and synaptic plasticity in Drosophila melanogaster. The European Journal of Neuroscience (2015) 42 (7) 2455-66.

van Alphen, B., Yap, MH, Kirszenblat, L., Kottler,B, van Swinderen,B. (2013).  A Dynamic Deep Sleep Stage in Drosophila.  The Journal of Neuroscience, 33(16): 6917-6927.

Kirszenblat L, Neumann B, Coakley S, Hilliard MA. (2013)        A dominant mutation in MEC-7/β-tubulin affects axon development and regeneration in C. elegans neurons. Molecular Biology of the Cell.  24(3):285-296.

Kirszenblat L, Pattabiraman D, Hilliard MA. (2011) LIN-44/Wnt Directs Dendrite Outgrowth through LIN-17/Frizzled in C. elegans Neurons. PLoS Biology. 2011 Sep;9(9):e1001157.

Boyce KJ, Schreider L, Kirszenblat L, Andrianopoulos A. (2011) The two-component histidine kinases DrkA and SlnA are required for in vivo growth in the human pathogen Penicillium marneffeiMolecular Microbiology. 82(5):1164-84.


I am interested in creating art inspired by science.  Through art, we can convey complex scientific information, as well as the wonders and mysteries of science.  Here are a few artworks I have created using illustrations or images taken under the microscope.

"Fruits of research". This branching red tree is one of the largest neurons in the fly brain. It appears to bear rare-coloured blue fruits (other unidentified cells) that signify the unexpected discoveries of science.


 This mysterious ring-like structure of the fly brain is thought to control spatial memory and attention – it also resembles a space probe flying through space.

"Space Probe". This mysterious ring-like structure of the fly brain is thought to control spatial memory and attention – it also resembles a space probe flying through space.

"Pyramidal neuron". This design is inspired by the structure of a pyramidal neuron- one of the largest and most beautiful neurons in the brain - and by imagery observed in contemporary Australian Indigenous paintings.

"Four Seasons". Genetically engineered fluorescent worms can be used all year round to ask basic questions in biology.

See this video for a glimpse at some of the experiments we can do with flies: Catching the attention of a fly – We can study selective attention in flies using grids of flashing lights to create virtual realities.