The Los Angeles Times recently discussed a bizarre new study conducted by University of Wisconsin geneticist Barry Ganetzky. The hope is that the curious approach of knocking fruit flies senseless can shed light onto how to protect humans from the damage done by concussions and other traumatic brain injuries.
Though the idea of studying fruit flies to help uncover information about human brains may seem unusual, experts say that fruit fly brains have already proven incredibly value in figuring out the human brain. Fruit flies have been used to study memory issues, epilepsy, sleep trouble and even addiction. Fruit flies make the perfect subject given their short life cycles, prodigious reproductive rates and the ease of accessing their genetic code.
Ganetzky says he got the idea of studying concussions in fruit flies after the recent high profile suicides of several former NFL football players, specifically Junior Seau. In each case, the players were discovered to have been suffering from a degenerative brain condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Ganetzky says he thought the episodes revealed how little doctors really know about concussions and how traumatic head injuries are largely detected symptomatically, meaning that they can only be diagnosed by doctors observing a person’s behavior and asking a series of simple questions. Unlike diabetes or high blood pressure, a concussion cannot be definitively measured. Ganetzky says he hopes that by studying how concussions impact fruit flies, clues might be discovered that would help make identification of TBI easier in humans.
To help study the issue, Ganetzky invented a contraption, basically a spring-loaded fly swatter, that would throw a vial of fruit flies at 6.7 miles per hour, giving them enough of a whack to leave them dazed and confused. Ganetzky then studied the flies and saw how the concussions activated an immune response similar to what happens in humans. Ganetzky believes that immune response is linked to degenerative brain disorders. The hope is that by identifying what happens after a concussion, better diagnosis tools and treatments can be developed to stop the head trauma from getting worse, sparing thousands of athletes, soldiers and even ordinary car accident victims from a lifetime of agony.