On Thursday 23 June 2022, Professor Alicia Hidalgo delivered her Inaugural Lecture – The Changing Brain of a Fly.
The brain is not a computer, it is a biological mush made of water, cells, DNA, and molecules that are made and decay as we go through life. During development, brain cells – neurons and glia – interact to establish intricate neural circuits, driving our behaviour, from wondering about life to doing and running. How do cells know what makes a functional nervous system? What happens to neural circuits as we go through life, do they stay the same or do they change? What could make them change? Structural changes in brain cells and circuits would modify our behaviour – which is what we need to adapt to life challenges, learn and remember from past to improve our future. Structural changes in the brain can explain how the brain works, how we adapt, what characterises the healthy brain and what happens in aging and brain disease. The human nervous system does not regenerate upon injury or disease. However, cells know how to establish and modify neural circuits in development, in adaptation and learning. If we could understand the underlying deep fundamental principles, we should be able to re-awaken and direct this ability of cells to promote regeneration and repair after brain and spinal cord damage, injury or disease. To this aim, is it key to discover molecular mechanisms that can drive structural brain change.
To investigate brain plasticity and regeneration, we use the fruit-fly Drosophila as a model organism, for its powerful genetics and the opportunities it offers to manipulate genes, discover molecular mechanisms and visualise neurons, glia, neural circuits and analyse behaviour. With my team, our findings are a journey from genes and molecular mechanisms to plasticity, regeneration and how experience shapes the brain. Ultimately, Drosophila discoveries expedite research, uncover fundamental principles on how any brain works and contribute to the understanding also of the human brain, in health and disease.