Rachel Wilson, Ph.D.

Professor of Neurobiology
  • Wilson Lab
  • 617/432-5571

Mission: The goal of our research is to understand how sensory information is processed by neural circuits, and to describe the mechanisms that underlie sensory processing.

Approach: We use the brain of the fruit fly Drosophila to investigate these questions. This tiny brain contains only ~100,000 neurons, and many individual neurons are uniquely identifiable across flies. Moreover, the powerful genetic toolbox of this organism provides a unique combination of tools for manipulating neural circuits.

Questions: We are characterizing the sensory responses of neurons in several different brain regions, with a particular emphasis on the olfactory system and auditory system. We aim to understand why it might be useful to represent sensory information in this particular format, and why this information is "reformatted' (or "transformed") as it moves from one brain region to another. In parallel, we are investigating the circuit, cellular, and synaptic mechanisms that shape these transformations. Our ultimate goal is to be able to predict what perceptual deficits will result from specific perturbations of neural activity in these circuits.

Techniques: We primarily use electrophysiological techniques (patch clamp recording and extracellular single-unit recording) to record the activity of individual identified neurons in vivo.

To complement these electrophysiological techniques, we use a variety of genetic tools:

  • We use the Gal4/UAS system to specifically label small subsets of neurons in the fly brain with fluorescent markers. This allows us to target our recording electrodes specifically to these neurons.
  • We image patterns of activity in identified neurons by expressing a genetically-encoded calcium sensor in these neurons under Gal4/UAS control.
  • We trace neural circuits by expressing genetically-encoded photoactivatable fluorophores under Gal4/UAS control and photoactivating in specific regions of interest.
  • We use genetic tools to perturb patterns of electrical activity in neural circuits by manipulating expression of specific ion channels, receptors, or neurosecretory molecules.

Finally, we measure behavioral responses to sensory stimuli in individual flies. By comparing the impact of specific genetic manipulations on both neural activity and behavior, we aim to understand how patterns of electrical activity in the brain correspond to sensory perceptions.

Our ultimate goal is to be able to predict what perceptual deficits will result from specific perturbations of neural activity in these circuits.

  1. Wilson RI. Early olfactory processing in Drosophila: mechanisms and principles. July 8, 2013. Annual review of neuroscience.

    Link to Abstract
  2. Liu WW, Wilson RI. Transient and specific inactivation of Drosophila neurons in vivo using a native ligand-gated ion channel. June 13, 2013. Current biology : CB.

    Link to Abstract
  3. Liu WW, Wilson RI. Glutamate is an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the Drosophila olfactory system. May 31, 2013. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

    Link to Abstract
  4. Kain J, Stokes C, Gaudry Q, Song X, Foley J, Wilson R, de Bivort B. Leg-tracking and automated behavioural classification in Drosophila. May 28, 2013. Nature communications.

    Link to Abstract
  5. Lehnert BP, Baker AE, Gaudry Q, Chiang AS, Wilson RI. Distinct Roles of TRP Channels in Auditory Transduction and Amplification in Drosophila. January 9, 2013. Neuron.

    Link to Abstract
  6. Gaudry Q, Hong EJ, Kain J, de Bivort BL, Wilson RI. Asymmetric neurotransmitter release enables rapid odour lateralization in Drosophila. December 23, 2012. Nature.

    Link to Abstract
  7. Zhou Y, Wilson RI. Transduction in Drosophila olfactory receptor neurons is invariant to air speed. July 18, 2012. Journal of neurophysiology.

    Link to Abstract
  8. Gaudry Q, Nagel KI, Wilson RI. Smelling on the fly: sensory cues and strategies for olfactory navigation in Drosophila. January 3, 2012. Current opinion in neurobiology.

    Link to Abstract
  9. Wilson RI, du Lac S. Sensory and motor systems. September 7, 2011. Current opinion in neurobiology.

    Link to Abstract
  10. Kazama H, Yaksi E, Wilson RI. Cell death triggers olfactory circuit plasticity via glial signaling in Drosophila. May 25, 2011. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience.

    Link to Abstract
  11. Wilson RI. Understanding the functional consequences of synaptic specialization: insight from the Drosophila antennal lobe. March 26, 2011. Current opinion in neurobiology.

    Link to Abstract
  12. Nagel KI, Wilson RI. Biophysical mechanisms underlying olfactory receptor neuron dynamics. January 9, 2011. Nature neuroscience.

    Link to Abstract
  13. Bhandawat V, Maimon G, Dickinson MH, Wilson RI. Olfactory modulation of flight in Drosophila is sensitive, selective and rapid. November 1, 2010. The Journal of experimental biology.

    Link to Abstract
  14. Wilson RI. It takes all kinds to make a brain. October 1, 2010. Nature neuroscience.

    Link to Abstract
  15. Yaksi E, Wilson RI. Electrical coupling between olfactory glomeruli. September 23, 2010. Neuron.

    Link to Abstract
  16. Wilson RI, Corey DP. The force be with you: a mechanoreceptor channel in proprioception and touch. August 12, 2010. Neuron.

    Link to Abstract
  17. Olsen SR, Bhandawat V, Wilson RI. Divisive normalization in olfactory population codes. April 29, 2010. Neuron.

    Link to Abstract
  18. Chou YH, Spletter ML, Yaksi E, Leong JC, Wilson RI, Luo L. Diversity and wiring variability of olfactory local interneurons in the Drosophila antennal lobe. February 7, 2010. Nature neuroscience.

    Link to Abstract
  19. Kazama H, Wilson RI. Origins of correlated activity in an olfactory circuit. August 16, 2009. Nature neuroscience.

    Link to Abstract
  20. Gouwens NW, Wilson RI. Signal propagation in Drosophila central neurons. May 13, 2009. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience.

    Link to Abstract
  21. Wilson RI. Neural and behavioral mechanisms of olfactory perception. October 8, 2008. Current opinion in neurobiology.

    Link to Abstract
  22. Olsen SR, Wilson RI. Cracking neural circuits in a tiny brain: new approaches for understanding the neural circuitry of Drosophila. September 3, 2008. Trends in neurosciences.

    Link to Abstract
  23. Kazama H, Wilson RI. Homeostatic matching and nonlinear amplification at identified central synapses. May 8, 2008. Neuron.

    Link to Abstract
  24. Olsen SR, Wilson RI. Lateral presynaptic inhibition mediates gain control in an olfactory circuit. March 16, 2008. Nature.

    Link to Abstract
  25. Wilson RI. Eppendorf 2007 winner. Neural circuits underlying chemical perception. October 26, 2007. Science (New York, N.Y.).

    Link to Abstract
  26. Bhandawat V, Olsen SR, Gouwens NW, Schlief ML, Wilson RI. Sensory processing in the Drosophila antennal lobe increases reliability and separability of ensemble odor representations. October 7, 2007. Nature neuroscience.

    Link to Abstract
  27. Schlief ML, Wilson RI. Olfactory processing and behavior downstream from highly selective receptor neurons. April 8, 2007. Nature neuroscience.

    Link to Abstract
  28. Olsen SR, Bhandawat V, Wilson RI. Excitatory interactions between olfactory processing channels in the Drosophila antennal lobe. April 5, 2007. Neuron.

    Link to Abstract
  29. Wilson RI. Neurobiology: scent secrets of insects. January 4, 2007. Nature.

    Link to Abstract
  30. Wilson RI, Mainen ZF. Early events in olfactory processing. January 1, 2006. Annual review of neuroscience.

    Link to Abstract
  31. Wilson RI, Laurent G. Role of GABAergic inhibition in shaping odor-evoked spatiotemporal patterns in the Drosophila antennal lobe. October 5, 2005. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience.

    Link to Abstract

Harvard Medical School
Dept of Neurobiology
220 Longwood Ave
Boston MA 02115