Organization of descending neurons in Drosophila melanogaster

Sci Rep. 2016 Feb 3;6:20259. doi: 10.1038/srep20259.


Neural processing in the brain controls behavior through descending neurons (DNs) - neurons which carry signals from the brain to the spinal cord (or thoracic ganglia in insects). Because DNs arise from multiple circuits in the brain, the numerical simplicity and availability of genetic tools make Drosophila a tractable model for understanding descending motor control. As a first step towards a comprehensive study of descending motor control, here we estimate the number and distribution of DNs in the Drosophila brain. We labeled DNs by backfilling them with dextran dye applied to the neck connective and estimated that there are ~1100 DNs distributed in 6 clusters in Drosophila. To assess the distribution of DNs by neurotransmitters, we labeled DNs in flies in which neurons expressing the major neurotransmitters were also labeled. We found DNs belonging to every neurotransmitter class we tested: acetylcholine, GABA, glutamate, serotonin, dopamine and octopamine. Both the major excitatory neurotransmitter (acetylcholine) and the major inhibitory neurotransmitter (GABA) are employed equally; this stands in contrast to vertebrate DNs which are predominantly excitatory. By comparing the distribution of DNs in Drosophila to those reported previously in other insects, we conclude that the organization of DNs in insects is highly conserved.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Drosophila Proteins / metabolism
  • Drosophila melanogaster / anatomy & histology*
  • Drosophila melanogaster / metabolism
  • Microscopy, Confocal
  • Neurons / classification*
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Neurons / ultrastructure
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / metabolism*
  • Staining and Labeling
  • Tissue Distribution


  • Drosophila Proteins
  • Neurotransmitter Agents