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Sex, flies and videotape: how social experience shapes behavior

Wednesday, May 7, 2014


Ulrike A. Heberlein
Scientific Program Director and Laboratory Head
Howard Hughes Medical Institute – Janelia Farm Research Campus

Dr. Heberlein started her independent academic career in 1993 when she became affiliated with University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), as a principal investigator in the Gallo Clinic and Research Center (Emeryville, Calif.) and an assistant professor in UCSF’s Department of Neurology. Before coming to Janelia, she served as a professor in UCSF’s Department of Anatomy. At the Gallo Center she pioneered the use of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism to decipher the molecular, neural, and behavioral mechanisms underlying drug addiction. Dr. Heberlein has received many awards for her work and in 2010 was elected as a foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences. She joined Janelia Farm in 2012.


Alcohol is one of the most widely used and abused drugs in the world with devastating medical and social consequences. The estimated prevalence of Alcohol Use Disorders is 8.5 percent in the United States, thus affecting more than 17 million Americans. The difficulty and cost of human studies have led to the development of animal models to investigate the genetic, molecular, and neural mechanisms underlying both the short- and long-term effects of ethanol. Rodent models have been most widely used and have provided important insights into these mechanisms. More recently, the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster has been developed as a model to study the effects of ethanol. The experimental and genetic accessibility of Drosophila makes it an ideal organism to study molecular, cellular and neurobiological processes, most of which are conserved between flies and mammals.

During acute ethanol exposure, adult flies exhibit locomotor hyperactivity followed by motor incoordination and sedation. Repeated ethanol exposures can induce either tolerance or sensitization in adult flies, depending on the behavioral response being measured; chronic ethanol exposure induces alcohol dependence and relapse-like behavior. In addition, flies exhibit more complex addiction-like behaviors, including a lasting attraction for a cue that predicts ethanol intoxication and a preference for consuming ethanol-containing food even if it’s made unpalatable.

In addition to a discussion about the validity of Drosophila as a model for alcoholism, the lecture will include an analysis of genetic and environmental/experiential factors that contribute to alcohol-induced behaviors.

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