Dragonflies have human-like 'selective attention': Study

Researchers have discovered that dragonflies have brain cells for selective attention, a mechanism which has so far only been demonstrated in primates.

Researchers at the University of Adelaide found the first evidence that dragonfly, an invertebrate animal, is capable of higher-level thought processes when hunting its prey. Dr Steven Wiederman and Associate Professor David O’Carroll from the University of Adelaide’s Centre for Neuroscience Research have been studying insect vision for many years.

Using a tiny glass probe with a tip that is only 60 nanometres wide - 1500 times smaller than the width of a human hair - the researchers have discovered neuron activity in the dragonfly’s brain that enables this selective attention. They found that when presented with more than one visual target, the dragonfly brain cell ‘locks on’ to one target and behaves as if the other targets don’t exist.

“Selective attention is fundamental to humans’ ability to select and respond to one sensory stimulus in the presence of distractions,” Wiederman said.

“Imagine a tennis player having to pick out a small ball from the crowd when it’s travelling at almost 200km an hour - you need selective attention in order to hit that ball back into play,” Wiederman said in a statement. “Precisely how this works in biological brains remains poorly understood, and this has been a hot topic in neuroscience in recent years,” he said.

“The dragonfly hunts for other insects, and these might be part of a swarm - they’re all tiny moving objects. Once the dragonfly has selected a target, its neuron activity filters out all other potential prey. The dragonfly then swoops in on its prey - they get it right 97 per cent of the time,” he added.

Researchers believe this brain activity makes the dragonfly a more efficient and effective predator. “What’s exciting for us is that this is the first direct demonstration of something akin to selective attention in humans shown at the single neuron level in an invertebrate,” he said.

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