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BASIC SCIENCE: Learning From Locusts

Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development logo

Basic Science at the National Institutes of Health
View of the National Institutes of Health Campus

View of scientist in a lab conducting an experiment
Narrator: The National Institutes of Health is the nation's medical research agency. Its scientists make important discoveries that improve health and save lives. Many researchers at the NIH focus on basic research that increases our understanding of health and disease.

Constantine Stratakis, MD, DMSci
Scientific Director, Division of Intramural Research
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health And Human Development

View of two scientists in a lab discussing an experiment in progress. Camera zooms in on a locust under a microscope
Dr. Stratakis: The basic science that we do here at the NIH will help in tackling human diseases, major human diseases, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.

The Value of Locusts to Basic Science

Close up image of a locust under a microscope hooked up to a devise that exposes it to different scents.

Views of a fruit fly, frogs, and then zebrafish swimming.
Narrator: To answer basic questions such as how cells communicate with each other, or how our organs and tissues form, researchers often use animal models such as fruit flies, roundworms, zebrafish, and frogs. Many people feel we have little in common with these organisms. But, at the cellular and molecular level, human beings have much in common with all forms of life. Also, these model organisms are ideal for laboratory work because they are inexpensive, easy to maintain, and have properties that make them ideal to study certain aspects of biology.
View of Dr. Mark Stopfer working in the locust facility. Close up of Dr. Stopfer looking at a cup with nymph locusts. View of full-grown locusts in their cage. Narrator: Dr. Mark Stopfer, a researcher at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, MD, uses locusts—grasshoppers—to study neuroscience.

Mark Stopfer, PhD
Investigator, Unit on Sensory Coding and Neural Ensembles
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

View of Dr. Stopfer talking. View of locus eating wheatgrass. Cut back to Dr. Stopfer talking. Close-up of computer screen in lab with colored lines. Close up of locus under microscope with probe in its head.
Dr. Stopfer:  The locust is actually a good animal to use to study certain questions in neuroscience.

Even though the insect looks very different from us, its nervous system in many ways is very similar to ours. The nerve cells communicate with each other in pretty much the same way. They use the same sort of electrical and chemical signals to communicate with each other and they're connected in pretty much the same way.
Computer generated simulation of signals traveling between human neurons. Rotating image of a single locust neuron. Dr. Stopfer: Compared to our brains, they have relatively few nerve cells and so it's relatively easy for us to get in there and figure out what each cell is contributing to the processing of information.
Close up of locust eating a blade of wheatgrass. Cut back to Dr. Stopfer talking. Cut to locust nymph under microscope. Cut to locust on wheatgrass. Dr. Stopfer: For certain questions, locusts really give us the most value for the research dollar. They're not expensive to raise. We can do experiments on locusts that, at the moment, can't be done in any other animal in order to answer certain kinds of questions. And we need the answers to those questions if we want to understand how the brain functions.

Understanding Our Sense of Smell
Image of a brain scan from multiple angles. Cut to woman smelling and orange. Cut to researcher setting up tubes to expose a locust to a smell. Narrator: In his quest to better understand the brain, Dr. Stopfer focuses on one of the brain's many functions—controlling the sense of smell. He's already learned some lessons from the locusts.
View of researcher in a lab, depressing a button to release a certain smell and watching readouts from the locust. Camera cut to view of locust farm with locusts in cages. Camera pans to Dr. Stopfer looking at the locusts. Cut to close up of locusts in cage. Dr. Stopfer: It turns out that there's really one best way to process the sense of smell and wherever you look across the animal kingdom, you see the same types of organizations and so it's very surprising, it certainly surprised me, but the sense of smell in the insect works very much the way the sense of smell works in us.
Camera cut to view of Dr. Stopfer talking. Camera cut to close up of hands placing pipettes in a holder. Camera cut to readout of neural activity. Camera cut to view of Dr. Stopfer talking. Dr. Stopfer: If we can understand how the sense of smell works in the brain, that will give us clues to how the brain is processing all kinds of complicated forms of information. And one thing we've learned by studying the sense of smell is that groups of nerve cells will suddenly start to fire together in a process called synchrony. They become synchronized. And that's how the brain normally works when it's processing the sense of smell.

Paving the Way for Medical Advances
View Dr. Stopfer's lab with Dr. Stopfer and one of his researchers discussing an ongoing experiment. Camera cut to close up of monitor showing readouts. Camera cut to different researcher in the lab working on an experiment; close up of her face transitions to close up of her hand on a computer mouse. Narrator: Basic research discoveries often have implications for a wide range of fields, including those that may seem unrelated to the original research.
Camera cuts to researcher looking at display. Dr. Stopfer walks in and they begin to talk point at a computer monitor and then shift their focus to an experiment in progress. Narrator: In this case, Dr. Stopfer's observations about nerve synchrony might inform research into medical conditions as diverse as dyslexia and epilepsy.

Dr. Stopfer: So how's the experiment going?
View of a brain scan with a computer monitor showing neural read out super-imposed. Camera cut to Dr. Stopfer talking. Camera cut to close up of computer showing locust neural activity. Camera cut to Dr. Stopfer conferring with another researcher. Dr. Stopfer: Synchrony can go bad in the brain. That's called epilepsy, when there's too much synchrony. So synchrony has to be controlled. It has to occur within limits. If we can understand how the brain works under normal situations, it'll help us understand how to prevent abnormal situations from occurring.
Man in hospital gown going through an MRI machine. Camera cut to a doctor taking to a patient lying in a hospital bed. Narrator: Most of today's successful drugs and medical devices were discovered as a result of basic research such as that conducted by Dr. Stopfer and other scientists at the NIH. As these scientists pursue basic questions about how life works, they are paving the way for future advances in understanding, diagnosing, treating or even preventing a wide range of medical conditions.

From the Bench to the Bedside at NIH
View of Dr. Stratakis talking. Camera cut to locust eating wheatgrass. Camera cut to close up of gloved hand pressing a button. Camera cut to locust under microscope with many tubes leading from bottles of odorants to the locust. Dr. Stratakis: By trying to uncover the fundamental truth of how everything works, you try to uncover how the human body works. You dig information from basic elements to how cells function, to how whole tissues function, to how an organism functions. Then you try to integrate this information to find out how the human body functions.
Camera cut to two researchers discussing an experiment in the lab. Camera cut to view of NIH campus. Camera cut to Dr. Stratakis talking. Dr. Stratakis: The unique concentration of intellect, resources and the system that links basic sciences to translational applications—this is what NIH is all about.

logos for:
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
NIH/Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
Images courtesy of the National Institutes of Health, Peter Halasz, Ben Rschr, H. Krisp.

Narration by Dr. Valerie Maholmes.
Fade to black [MUSIC OUT]
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