Drosophila behaviour and cognition

We use the Drosophila model to address complex questions in neuroscience, such as perception and subjective awareness.


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The van Swinderen laboratory uses the fruit fly model Drosophila melanogaster to understand mechanisms underlying consciousness.

Three questions are studied in particular: how do general anaesthetics work? why do we sleep? and, how does a brain pay attention?

These complex questions are typically studied in humans but can be effectively addressed in the smallest of animal brains. By combining powerful molecular genetic tools with behavioural assays, electrophysiology, brain imaging, we are able to uncover the underpinnings of these complex phenomena relevant to understanding consciousness. To pay attention, learn, and sleep, a brain must be able to suppress or prioritise parts of the outside world effectively, yet some drugs abolish this in seconds. To understand these complex mechanisms requires linking local effects on molecules and neurons with global, brain-wide consequences. Drosophila research offers a realistic model to make those links, in order to understand how healthy brains work but also how they might fail in disease.

Although sleep and attention might seem very different to us, it is possible that both phenomena involve similar plasticity mechanisms in the brain. This hypothesis, guides several projects in the lab, where the effects of sleep on attention (and vice versa) are investigated in the fruit fly model. Our discovery that flies sleep in different stages, with distinct kinds of brain activity, allows to now exploit the powerful Drosophila model to understand the many functions of sleep. Accordingly, our sleep research is aimed at understanding how distinct sleep stages might be accomplishing entirely different functions, but also how a brain knows exactly what kind of sleep it needs. By understanding how sleep naturally maintains brain health, we should be able to better design strategies targeting specific sleep functions aimed at correcting different kinds of brain disorders.

Our work on general anaesthesia is largely focussed on understanding a new mechanism that we have discovered for these drugs. We have found that common general anaesthetics such as propofol impair presynaptic release of neurotransmitters, in addition to acting on postsynaptic receptors. The laboratory is actively involved in understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying this effect on neurotransmission, with a view to developing novel tools to render a brain unconscious and unresponsive. This aligns with our larger research goal of understanding consciousness by turning it off.

General anaesthetics do more than put you to sleep

Group leader

Professor Bruno van Swinderen

Group Leader, Drosophila behaviour and cognition

Principal Research Fellow - GL

  +61 7 334 66332
  UQ Researcher Profile

Our approach

Our strategy is to use the Drosophila model to address complex questions in neuroscience, such as perception and subjective awareness. We use a wide range of genetic and brain recording tools that are often uniquely available to the fly model.


Aims to achieve

Our long-term vision is to understand how a brain produces subjective awareness. To achieve this long-term goal, we have focussed on understanding three brain states where awareness can be lost: general anaesthesia, sleep, and selective attention. During selective attention, we become unaware of objects outside our focus. How does that work? During sleep, the outside world is more broadly suppressed. Why is this necessary? Finally, during general anaesthesia, a bewildering array of drugs achieve the same, but deeper. By studying these three ways in which consciousness is lost, we hope to arrive at a better understanding on what is necessary for consciousness to exist – in any animal.

Research areas

  • Selective attention
  • Sleep
  • General anaesthesia

Selective attention 

Selective attention refers to the brain’s capacity to prioritise one set of stimuli while ignoring others. This serial way of perceiving the world promotes learning and memory. Amazingly, even flies seem to pay attention to their world in a similar way, suggesting a common mechanism in all animal brains. We discovered that this common mechanism may be centred oscillatory neural activity in the brain. Dynamic oscillations in different frequency ranges (e.g., 20-30Hz ‘beta’ or 30-50Hz ‘gamma’) are evident when we record brain activity from flies attending to visual objects. Optogenetic approaches allow us to control specific circuits in the fly brain to understand how these oscillations work to help the brain pay attention. To study this, we have developed virtual reality visual environments for both tethered and freely-walking flies. We are especially interested in understanding how attention might be affected by sleep process.


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 as interested in understanding how sleep works to block out the world as what it’s for. We have recently discovered that, like many other animals, flies sleep in different stages. This includes a deep sleep stage that seems to be important for maintaining cellular health, as well as an ‘active’ sleep stage that helps flies pay better attention. Our findings suggest conservation of key sleep functions through evolution.

General anaesthesia

The mechanism of general anaesthesia remains unknown, despite almost 200 years since we began using these drugs for surgery. One reason the mechanism has remained so difficult to tackle lies in its complexity. We have discovered a new presynaptic mechanism for general anaesthesia centred on the neurotransmitter release machinery. Together with better understood post-synaptic receptor targets for these drugs, our finding potentially explains how these diverse mechanisms come together to produce the loss of consciousness that is required for surgery. We use a broad range of neuroscience techniques, from single molecule imaging and neuron recordings to whole brain imaging and behavioural analysis, to understand how general anaesthesia really works to render a brain completely unresponsive.

Our team

Group Leader


Research Assistants

Casual Research Assistants

  • Mr Julius Alpay

    Casual Research Assistant
    Queensland Brain Institute
  • Miss Montana Samantzis

    Casual Research Assistant & Research Assistant & Casual Research Assistant
    Queensland Brain Institute



  • Dr Bart van Alphen
  • Dr Adekunle Bademosi
  • Benjamin Calcagno
  • Dr Dror Cohen
  • Oliver Evans
  • Dr Richard Faville
  • Lachlan Fergusen
  • Joseph Goodsell
  • Dr Martyna Grabowska
  • Dr Wendy Imlach
  • Dr Leonie Kirszenblatt
  • Dr Benjamin Kottler
  • Dr Angelique Paulk
  • Alice Petty
  • Jacqui Stacey
  • James Steeves
  • Dr Melvyn Yap
  • Dr Oressia Zalucki

Research excellence

$33M in grants last calendar year
400 peer-reviewed publications last calendar year
5 Fellows of the Australian Academy of Science

$200M+ in cumulative funding
Our researchers are cited 3x more than average
100% of donations go to the cause

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What's new

  • Bees have been found to have selective attention and key components of consciousness in a QBI study performed at UQ.
  • Researchers at The University of Queensland have discovered that, like humans, flies sleep in stages of different intensities.
  • Scientists at the Queensland Brain Institute, The University of Queensland, have found a way to measure the attention span of a fly, which could lead to further advances in the understanding of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism in humans.


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