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Scientists work to rewire mosquito brains

A team of researchers at the University of Washington have been working for over a year and half to learn how to mislead mosquitoes. Jay Parrish and Jeff Riffell, the biologists involved in the study, studied the brains of the bloodsucking insects, focusing on their sense of smell, or the olfactory system.

According to Riffell, studying the sense of smell is important to understanding mosquito behaviors. “Chemical communication is the oldest sensory system and underlies nearly every critical ecological and evolutionary interaction,” he said.

Previously is has been found that mosquitoes use their sense of smell to find their prey. Studies have deduced that human blood in particular smells delicious to the sometime dangerous insects. Riffell and Parrish focused their research on trying to find which of the more than 300 body odors released by man mosquitoes are attracted to. Though the task seemed daunting, finding what attracts mosquitoes to humans would have major implications in fighting diseases caused by the insects.

After finding the human scent mosquitoes love, Parrish expects to set up traps that would be loaded with the chemical odor at various geographical locations. Once trapped, the scientists would study the mosquitoes at the site for traces of diseases, including the deadly, West Nile Virus. Finding the specific mosquito-trapping smell would also prove useful for consumers. Devices could be produced for outdoor enthusiasts to trap mosquitoes without the use of skin sprays.

In order to eventually develop such sensors, Parrish, Riffell, and their research team are currently studying every aspect of the mosquito olfactory system. The scientists have been working on genetically silencing odor receptors in the mosquitoes. They then film the insects and make observations on their behaviors.

Finding and silencing the correct receptor can result in major behavioral changes in the mosquitoes. Some insects have become lethargic and disoriented after their olfactory receptors were tampered with. The researchers believe these behaviors are due to the mosquito’s inability to smell and locate blood.

Another project in the UW biology lab involves changing the electro-chemical make-up of the mosquitoes’ neurons. Since neurons carry signals to and from the brain, tampering with them could impede brain signals in response to environmental changes, including light and temperature. Having control over the insects’ neurons, would allow Parrish and Riffell to find the areas of the mosquito that are involved in olfaction.

The lab isn’t just concerned with where and how the mosquitoes sense of smell works and takes places. They are also focused on discovering how the insects use smells to learn and form memories. So far, their research has revealed that despite tampering with the mosquitoes natural ability to find prey, they simply find another way. This means they are actively learning.

Toby Bradshaw, believes the research conducted by Parrish and Riffell, both professors, was facilitated by joining forces and hopes that their findings can aid research in many different disciplines. “Real advances happen across the boundaries of biology, not in isolated specialties,” he said. “It takes the right faculty and it takes the right shared space.”