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We investigate the relation between neuronal circuits and behaviour with an emphasis on the diversification of circuits and the role of genes in specifying different neuronal networks and their assembly during development. We use state of the art techniques of Drosophila neurogenetics and combine it with the study of behavior to understand how Hox genes orchestrate the diversification of motor circuits during nervous system development. We also use a multidisciplinary approach, working with mathematicians, physicists and ecologists, to understand how neuronal activity generates specific patterns of movements, with the idea that our models will provide valuable information about the neuronal characteristics of the circuits underlying specialised behaviours.

Current research topics include:

  • Hox Genes and the Diversification of Neuronal Networks: Specialized patterns of movements such as chewing, crawling and turning are characteristic of different locations along the body axis and they are generated by specific neuronal circuits, which are distributed along the axis of the central nervous system (Berni et al. 2012; Berni 2015). We investigate the genetic regulation of the diversification of neural circuits along the body axis during embryonic development. Our research focuses on the nature of regional differences within the central nervous system, and how during development the Hox genes act to determine the formation of distinct, specialised neuronal networks that generate a diverse behavioural repertoire at different levels of the body axis. We also investigate what further developmental mechanisms generate the necessary integration across these different networks that allows for coordinated patterns of output.

  • A Mathematical Model for Exploratory Behaviour: To understand how neuronal activity generates the exploratory behavior of the larva we have been working with Dr. Julijana Gjorgjieva and have designed a mathematical model for the circuit underlying crawls (Gjorgjieva et al. 2013). Using our new data of neuronal morphology and data of activity, we are now working on a model that will include the components and dynamics which generate crawls and turns. The model will also include frequency of transition between crawls and turns that are fundamental to generate the exploratory strategy. 

Key Publications 

  • Picao-Osorio J, Johnston J, Landgraf M, Berni J, Alonso CR. MicroRNA-encoded behavior in Drosophila. Science. 350(6262), 815-20 (2015)
  • Pulver SR, Bayley TG, Taylor AL, Berni J, Bate M, Hedwig B. Imaging fictive locomotor patterns in larval Drosophila. Journal of Neurophysioly 114(5), 2564-77 (2015)
  • J Berni (2015). Genetic dissection of a regionally differentiated network for exploratory behavior in Drosophila larvae. Current Biology, 25(10):1319-26.
  • J Gjorgjieva, J Berni, JF Evers, S Eglen (2013). Neural Circuits for Peristaltic Wave Propagation in Crawling Drosophila Larvae: Analysis and Modeling. Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience, 7(art.4):1-19
  • Berni J, Pulver SR, Griffith LC and Bate M. (2012). Autonomous circuit for substrate exploration in freely moving Drosophila larva. Current Biology, 22:1861-1870

Full publication list via PubMed


Contact Details

Group Leader

Dr Jimena Berni

Department of Zoology
University of Cambridge
Downing St

01223  (7)63189

Group Members