Learning is not restricted to higher animals, it also occurs in invertebrates. Studies on model organisms like the nematode, the fruit fly, the snail and the mice have revealed that genes and neural pathways involved in learning are remarkably conserved. Therefore, invertebrate model organisms, with their much more \"simpler\" brain, are extremely useful to study the mechanisms of learning at the cellular level.
Here, I present an appealing proposal to reveal general mechanisms underlying associative learning in the parasitoid wasp Cotesia. By using two closely related wasp species with a clear naturally occurring difference in learning capabilities, neural elements exhibiting plasticity during learning will be specifically highlighted. One of the two species, Cotesia glomerata (Hymenoptera: Braconidae), can learn to associate plant-emitted odours with the presence of suitable hosts on a particular plant. Thereby it can change its innate preference to plant odours, in contrast to Cotesia rubecula, a species that does not learn under similar conditions. In another hymenopteran, the honeybee, a single neuron, mediates the reward stimulus during associative learning.
Electrical stimulation of this neuron triggers the proboscis extension reflex (PER) and completely substitutes the sucrose reward in associative olfactory learning Neural elements specifically displaying neural plasticity during learning will be compared for both wasp species by using a multidisciplinary approach. Intracellular properties and innervation patterns of the VUM neuron in both species will be established and tuning properties of reward-sensitive chemosensory neurons will be assessed.
Coding patterns in the primary olfactory centre in the brain, the antennal lobe will be compared in both species before and after learning by means of optical imaging. The Dutch candidate will return to her country of nationality The Netherlands, after a successful 24 months Marie Curie.
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