The Attention Span of a Fruit Fly
Having “the attention span of a fruit fly” is a commonly heard expression which is used by people either about themselves in self-deprecation or about others as a derogatory description. Even tee shirts are available at www.zazzle.com online which say “I have the attention span of a retarded fruit fly.”
Recently, scientists have actually been doing research on the attention span of fruit flies. Scientists have been doing experimentation on fruit flies for years in order to understand human genetics and other aspects of the human condition. For this particular research, scientists from Australia and Germany teamed up and found a way to measure the attention span of these ubiquitous creatures. The desired goal was to advance understanding in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism in people.
The fruit flies were fed methylphenidate, the generic form of Ritalin which is commonly used to treat ADHD. The researchers found that the drug enabled distracted flies to better pay attention to sensory information in the environmental in the same way it does for humans. This contradicts a popular myth that fruit flies cannot pay attention because they do not possess any cognitive ability. Instead, this study suggests some similarities in the brain structures of both species.
The scientists in this study were able to discover mutations in some flies that either augment or lessen the insect’s ability to pay attention. All the mutations were found to increase problems with memory and learning. On the one end are flies that concentrate so intensely that they are difficult to distract. This is like people with autism who are difficult to communicate with because they are so over- focused on their own thoughts and perceived to be in a world of their own. On the other end of the spectrum, are flies and people with ADHD who distract too easily and thereby find it difficult to accomplish anything.
The ideal scenario is being able to focus somewhere in the middle instead of at either extreme in order to be able to properly make sense of one’s world. Concentrating too much or too little affects one’s ability to take in information and remember it. The scientists hope that by studying the flies, information will be gained that will prove helpful in managing these learning challenges in humans.
The scientific paper written about this study, possibly a bit too erudite for many readers (including me), can be found in the January 20, 2010 edition of The Journal of Neuroscience and is also available online at the journal’s website. It is entitled “Attention-Like Deficit and Hyperactivity in a Drosophila Memory Mutant” by Bruno van Swinderen and Bjorn Brembs.