Function of a fly motion-sensitive neuron matches eye movements during free flight

PLoS Biol. 2005 Jun;3(6):e171. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0030171. Epub 2005 May 17.


Sensing is often implicitly assumed to be the passive acquisition of information. However, part of the sensory information is generated actively when animals move. For instance, humans shift their gaze actively in a sequence of saccades towards interesting locations in a scene. Likewise, many insects shift their gaze by saccadic turns of body and head, keeping their gaze fixed between saccades. Here we employ a novel panoramic virtual reality stimulator and show that motion computation in a blowfly visual interneuron is tuned to make efficient use of the characteristic dynamics of retinal image flow. The neuron is able to extract information about the spatial layout of the environment by utilizing intervals of stable vision resulting from the saccadic viewing strategy. The extraction is possible because the retinal image flow evoked by translation, containing information about object distances, is confined to low frequencies. This flow component can be derived from the total optic flow between saccades because the residual intersaccadic head rotations are small and encoded at higher frequencies. Information about the spatial layout of the environment can thus be extracted by the neuron in a computationally parsimonious way. These results on neuronal function based on naturalistic, behaviourally generated optic flow are in stark contrast to conclusions based on conventional visual stimuli that the neuron primarily represents a detector for yaw rotations of the animal.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Diptera / physiology*
  • Eye Movements / physiology*
  • Female
  • Flight, Animal / physiology*
  • Motor Activity / physiology
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Optic Lobe, Nonmammalian / physiology
  • Saccades