University of Massachusetts Medical School Faculty Publications

A single pair of interneurons commands the Drosophila feeding motor program

Thomas F. Flood, University of Massachusetts Medical School
Shinya Iguchi, University of Massachusetts Medical School
Michael Gorczyca, University of Massachusetts Medical School
Benjamin White, National Institute of Mental Health
Kei Ito, University of Tokyo
Motojiro Yoshihara, University of Massachusetts Medical School

First author Thomas F. Flood is a doctoral student in the Neuroscience program in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS) at UMass Medical School.


Many feeding behaviours are the result of stereotyped, organized sequences of motor patterns. These patterns have been the subject of neuroethological studies, such as electrophysiological characterization of neurons governing prey capture in toads. However, technical limitations have prevented detailed study of the functional role of these neurons, a common problem for vertebrate organisms. Complexities involved in studies of whole-animal behaviour can be resolved in Drosophila, in which remote activation of brain cells by genetic means enables us to examine the nervous system in freely moving animals to identify neurons that govern a specific behaviour, and then to repeatedly target and manipulate these neurons to characterize their function. Here we show neurons that generate the feeding motor program in Drosophila. We carried out an unbiased screen using remote neuronal activation and identified a critical pair of brain cells that induces the entire feeding sequence when activated. These 'feeding neurons' (here abbreviated to Fdg neurons for brevity) are also essential for normal feeding as their suppression or ablation eliminates sugar-induced feeding behaviour. Activation of a single Fdg neuron induces asymmetric feeding behaviour and ablation of a single Fdg neuron distorts the sugar-induced feeding behaviour to become asymmetric, indicating the direct role of these neurons in shaping motor-program execution. Furthermore, recording neuronal activity and calcium imaging simultaneously during feeding behaviour reveals that the Fdg neurons respond to food presentation, but only in starved flies. Our results demonstrate that Fdg neurons operate firmly within the sensorimotor watershed, downstream of sensory and metabolic cues and at the top of the feeding motor hierarchy, to execute the decision to feed.