Cycle-to-cycle variability of neuromuscular activity in Aplysia feeding behavior

J Neurophysiol. 2004 Jul;92(1):157-80. doi: 10.1152/jn.01190.2003. Epub 2004 Feb 25.


Aplysia consummatory feeding behavior, a rhythmic cycling of biting, swallowing, and rejection movements, is often said to be stereotyped. Yet closer examination shows that cycles of the behavior are very variable. Here we have quantified and analyzed the variability at several complementary levels in the neuromuscular system. In reduced preparations, we recorded the motor programs produced by the central pattern generator, firing of the motor neurons B15 and B16, and contractions of the accessory radula closer (ARC) muscle while repetitive programs were elicited by stimulation of the esophageal nerve. In other similar experiments, we recorded firing of motor neuron B48 and contractions of the radula opener muscle. In intact animals, we implanted electrodes to record nerve or ARC muscle activity while the animals swallowed controlled strips of seaweed or fed freely. In all cases, we found large variability in all parameters examined. Some of this variability reflected systematic, slow, history-dependent changes in the character of the central motor programs. Even when these trends were factored out, however, by focusing only on the differences between successive cycles, considerable variability remained. This variability was apparently random. Nevertheless, it too was the product of central history dependency because regularizing merely the high-level timing of the programs also regularized many of the downstream neuromuscular parameters. Central motor program variability thus appears directly in the behavior. With regard to the production of functional behavior in any one cycle, the large variability may indicate broad tolerances in the operation of the neuromuscular system. Alternatively, some cycles of the behavior may be dysfunctional. Overall, the variability may be part of an optimal strategy of trial, error, and stabilization that the CNS adopts in an uncertain environment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Aplysia / physiology*
  • Electric Stimulation / methods
  • Feeding Behavior / physiology*
  • Ganglia, Invertebrate / physiology
  • In Vitro Techniques
  • Muscle Contraction / physiology
  • Neuromuscular Junction / physiology*