Long-lasting internal states, like hunger, aggression, and sexual arousal, pattern ongoing behavior by defining how the sensory world is translated to specific actions that subserve the needs of an animal. Yet how enduring internal states shape sensory processing or behavior has remained unclear. In Drosophila, male flies will perform a lengthy and elaborate courtship ritual, triggered by activation of sexually-dimorphic P1 neurons, in which they faithfully follow and sing to a female. Here, by recording from males as they actively court a fictive ‘female’ in a virtual environment, we gain insight into how the salience of female visual cues is transformed by a male’s internal arousal state to give rise to persistent courtship pursuit. We reveal that the gain of LC10a visual projection neurons is strongly increased during courtship, enhancing their sensitivity to moving targets. A simple network model based on the LC10a circuit accurately predicts a male’s tracking of a female over hundreds of seconds, underscoring that LC10a visual signals, once released by P1-mediated arousal, become coupled to motor pathways to deterministically control his visual pursuit. Furthermore, we find that P1 neuron activity correlates with fluctuations in the intensity of a male’s pursuit, and that their acute activation is sufficient to boost the gain of the LC10 pathways. Together, these results reveal how alterations in a male’s internal arousal state can dynamically modulate the propagation of visual signals through a high-fidelity visuomotor circuit to guide his moment-to-moment performance of courtship.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience