It is well known that almost every living thing that moves, moves forward. However, is it possible for them to move as smoothly in the opposite direction? Scientists have never fully understood how the brain signaled this ‘reverse walking’ to the body. But according to a new study, they may just find out.

A study on fruit flies conducted by the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP) has found that some flies are said to be in ‘reverse mode’ when they were walking, similar to the moonwalk popularized by Michael Jackson. Though this phenomenon has been known to occur, researchers do not know how the brain communicates with the body of the insect to do so.

The Institute, situated in Austria, developed a total of 3,500 different types of fruit flies, called ‘strains’. They used a new technique called thermogenetics to understand the eccentric motion of these flies.

Each fly strain was modified, so that there was a difference in that part of their brain which responds to heat. This part in the brain is controlled by a switch. When the switch is activated, neurons are released, which cause moonwalking. The way to activate these switches in the fly’s brain was by using heat.

Using this, they found one fly that did the moonwalk.

The moonwalk was the work of two neurons – one in the brain and the other in the nerve cord. The brain neuron initiated the moonwalking if the fly encountered an obstacle, and the nerve cord neuron prevented the fly from backing into an obstacle. Thus the neuron in the brain was responsible for reverse walking, when it was activated.

Then the researchers studied a number of fruit flies to further track the reverse walking phenomenon.

So why does this happen? Most animals walk forward, under normal conditions. However, they can walk in reverse if they need to. Reverse walking takes place on seeing a predator, or even in the presence of an obstacle.

What does thermogenetics do? It basically warms up the neurons to change the organism’s behaviour. When the team analysed many flies, they found that some types would walk differently when exposed to warmer temperatures, and subsequently walked in reverse when they experienced heat. The tracked down the movement to specific nerve cells in the fly’s brain. These were called “moonwalker neurons”. To prove their point, researchers suppressed these neurons and then found that the fly could not walk backwards.

Though all higher organisms have a far more complex system when compared to insects, there are similarities. Thus, this research could help in analyzing the communication between the neurons in human systems too. The neurons are a vital starting point to find other networks that are involved in walking backwards.