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Dr. Kei Ito majored in experimental particle physics when he was an undergraduate student, but switched his focus when he entered the graduate course to establish a neural circuit diagram that is detailed enough for making an artificial intelligence machine that can emulate the overall function of a real brain.
As a model system that is complex enough for controlling a diverse repertoire of sophisticated behavior but simple enough for revealing comprehensive neural projections at single-cell resolution, he chose the brain of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. He obtained his PhD degree from the University of Tokyo in 1991 with the first systematic analysis of the spatio-temporal division pattern of the neural stem cells that form the adult fly brain. During his postdoc period at the University of Mainz, Germany, he initiated an endeavor for identifying glial cells and neurons systematically by generating and screening a large array of expression driver strains that each visualizes specific cell types. Since then, as assistant professor at the National Institute for Basic Biology and then associated professor at the University of Tokyo, he has been establishing comprehensive catalogues of the neurons in the visual, olfactory, gustatory, auditory, and learning/memory systems. He also made the first draft projectome diagram (neuropil connectome map) of the entire Drosophila brain by revealing specific progeny of almost all the neural stem cells. Anatomical information and expression driver strains he provided served as indispensable resources also for other scientists to reveal the roles of specific neurons for various brain functions including sensory recognition, learning and memory, and courtship and feeding behavior control. Towards establishing a common framework of neuroanatomy, he recently led an international consortium to define a controlled nomenclature and mapping system of the entire parts of the insect brain.
Having analyzed the architecture of most sensory and associative centers, he now focuses on the brain regions that have not been investigated so far, a sort of terra incognita. Although having essentially been neglected, such regions occupy more than half the volume of the brain and feature extensive connections with each other as well as with known sensory, integration and motor centers. In this regard they are actually terra interconnecta. Collaboration with the Janelia will provide fundamental insights on their structure and function.