Barry Dickson is a visiting professor at the Queensland Brain Institute and a group leader at the Janelia Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, VA, U.S.A. Previously, he was Scientific Director of the Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna, Austria. Originally from Melbourne, Barry obtained his PhD in Switzerland, performed postdoctoral research in California, and was a group leader and senior scientist during 15 years spent in Vienna before moving to the U.S.A. in 2013 and joining QBI in 2015. Barry is a member of EMBO, a Fellow of the AAAS, and a recipient of the Wittgenstein Prize from the Austrian Science Foundation and the Science Prize of the city of Vienna.
Barry's research group has pioneered the investigation of neural circuits and behaviour in Drosophila, particularly the circuits that govern mating behaviours and locomotion. In 2006, his group published two ground-breaking papers demonstrating that a single gene determined male courtship behaviour and providing the first genetic access to the specific neurons and circuits that control this behaviour. Another notable discovery was the identification, in 2014, of a descending neuron that controls backward versus forward walking in the fly. Barry's group has also been instrumental in the development of technologies and large-scale resources that empower the genetic analysis of neural circuits in Drosophila.
Coordinated walking is thought to rely on local circuits in the ventral nerve cord, called central pattern generators (CPGs), that produce the rhythmic motor patterns that move each of the 3 joints in each of the 6 legs. Proprioceptive sensory inputs from the legs are critical for timing each joint movement, while neural pathways connecting the left and right halves and each segment of the ventral nerve cord would coordinate movements of each leg. Finally, descending pathways from the brain should modulate these thoracic circuits to steer walking in a particular direction.
In our small laboratory at QBI, the group investigates the functional organisation of these walking circuits. The initial goal is to exploit the genetic tools available in Drosophila to define, monitor, and manipulate the specific neurons and circuits involved in directed locomotion. We then aim to understand the operational logic of these circuits. Conceptually, because each joint in each leg can move independently, the fly's posture at any given moment can be described by 18 distinct angles, or more formally as a point in an 18-dimensional space. Walking can then be viewed as a trajectory (time series) through this 18-dimensional space. Of the enormous range of possible trajectories in an 18-dimensional, the nervous system reliably produces the very small subset that constitute effective walking with a certain gait, speed and direction. Our ultimate objective is to understand how the organisational logic of the underlying neural circuits constrains the range of possible movements to these few effective configurations and trajectories, and how the descending inputs from the brain switch between them.
- Professor Ansgar Büschges, University of Cologne, Germany
- Professor Richard Mann, Columbia University, New York
- Professor Silvia Daun-Gruhn, University of Cologne, Cermany
- Dr Gwyneth Card, Janelia Research Campus, HHMI, U.S.A.
- Dr Julie Simpson, Janelia Research Campus, HHMI, U.S.A.
Bidaye, S.J., Machecek, C., Wu, Y. and Dickson, B.J. (2014). Neuronal control of Drosophila walking direction. Science 6179: 97-101.