Rachel Wilson, 2005


    E.A. Westeinde, E. Kellogg, P.M. Dawson, J. Lu, L. Hamburg, B. Midler, S. Druckmann, R.I. Wilson (2024) Transforming a head direction signal into a goal-oriented steering command. Nature 626(8000):819-826.

    H.H. Yang, L.E. Brezovec, L.S. Capdevila, Q.X. Vanderbeck, A. Adachi, R.S. Mann, R.I. Wilson (2023) Fine-grained descending control of steering in walking Drosophila. bioRxiv [Preprint] 2023.10.15.562426. doi: 10.1101/2023.10.15.562426.

    Y.E. Fisher, M. Marquis, I. D’Alessandro, R.I. Wilson (2022) Dopamine promotes head direction plasticity during orienting movements. Nature 612(7939):316-322.

    Lu, A. Behbehani, L. Hamburg, E.A. Westeinde, P.M. Dawson, C. Lyu, G. Maimon, M. Dickinson, S. Druckmann, R.I. Wilson (2021). Transforming representations of movement from body- to world-centric space. Nature 601: 98–104.

    Y.E. Fisher, J. Lu, I. D’Alessandro, R.I. Wilson (2019) Sensorimotor experience remaps visual inputs to a heading direction network. Nature 576:121-125.


    Armenise Harvard Junior Faculty Grant, Department of Neurobiology: “Early Events in the Processing of Taste Information in Drosophila”, 2005.

Who she is

Rachel Wilson earned an A.B. in chemistry summa cum laude from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of California, San Francisco. She did postdoctoral training at the California Institute of Technology before joining the faculty in the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School in 2004. She is now the Joseph B. Martin Professor of Basic Research in the Field of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, as well as an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Her research contributions have been recognized by a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and the Society for Neuroscience Young Investigator Award, as well as election to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2014 she was named the first Blavatnik Foundation National Laureate in Life Sciences. She served as Associate Director of the Harvard Ph.D. Program in Neuroscience for six years, and her mentorship of students and postdocs has been recognized by a Young Mentor Award from Harvard Medical School.

What she does

Dr. Wilson’s laboratory studies the neural computations that occur in navigation, spatial learning, and visuo-motor control. Her lab focuses on the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster because its central nervous system contains only about 150,000 neurons. Moreover, the Drosophila genetic toolbox allows scientists to rapidly generate new reagents to label or manipulate specific cell types. In addition, Drosophila melanogaster is the only species with a true “brain” for which we have a complete wiring diagram of all the neurons and synaptic connections in the central nervous system. Dr. Wilson’s lab uses genetic tools to target specific cells in the connectome, allowing them to perform electrophysiological recordings and calcium imaging experiments from neurons with completely defined anatomical connectivity. They perform these recordings as flies navigate in virtual reality environments, allowing them to observe and perturb neural activity across the nervous system during spatial exploration, learning, and goal-directed locomotion.

News from the Lab

A recent study from Dr. Wilson’s lab (Westeinde et al., 2024) investigates how organisms navigate through their environments by continuously estimating their direction and correcting deviations from their goals. The study identifies three cell populations in the Drosophila brain that connect the head direction system to the locomotor system. These populations are involved in transforming the sense of direction into goal-oriented steering commands.

Specifically, this study showed that two of these cell types are most active when the fly is oriented to the left or right of its goal, respectively. Their activity drives directional steering maneuvers that correct small deviations from the fly’s intended path.

Meanwhile, a third cell type increases the vigor of steering commands, without specifying the direction of steering. This third cell type is specifically recruited when the fly is oriented far from its goal. In effect, this third cell type dynamically adjusts the gain of steering commands, driving high-gain (high-speed) corrections for large errors. This allows the system to operate in low-gain mode as long as errors are small, which allows steering to be more precise, and avoids instability and oscillations.

All three of these cell types combine a signal from the brain’s direction system (the seat of the “sense of direction”) with another signal from “goal cells”. This study shows that directional goals must be formatted as copies of specific head directions in the brain.

As a whole, this study reveals how the sense of direction can be used to generate locomotor commands with adaptive gain that manages the tradeoff between speed and accuracy. The conclusions of this study generate testable predictions for how goals could be stored in memory and retrieved on demand. Because the basic problems of navigation are fundamental problems of geometry and information retrieval, the solutions described in this study likely have general relevance for other systems.