Regulation and modulation of electric waveforms in gymnotiform electric fish

J Comp Physiol A Neuroethol Sens Neural Behav Physiol. 2006 Jun;192(6):613-24. doi: 10.1007/s00359-006-0101-1. Epub 2006 Jan 26.


Weakly electric gymnotiform fish specialize in the regulation and modulation of the action potentials that make up their multi-purpose electric signals. To produce communication signals, gymnotiform fish modulate the waveforms of their electric organ discharges (EODs) over timescales spanning ten orders of magnitude within the animal's life cycle: developmental, reproductive, circadian, and behavioral. Rapid changes lasting milliseconds to seconds are the result of direct neural control of action potential firing in the electric organ. Intermediate-term changes taking minutes to hours result from the action of melanocortin peptides, the pituitary hormones that induce skin darkening and cortisol release in many vertebrates. Long-term changes in the EOD waveform taking days to weeks result from the action of sex steroids on the electrocytes in the electric organ as well as changes in the neural control structures in the brain. These long-term changes in the electric organ seem to be associated with changes in the expression of voltage-gated ion channels in two gene families. Electric organs express multiple voltage-gated sodium channel genes, at least one of which seems to be regulated by androgens. Electric organs also express multiple subunits of the shaker (Kv1) family of voltage-gated potassium channels. Expression of the Kv1 subtype has been found to vary with the duration of the waveform in the electric signal. Our increasing understanding of the mechanisms underlying precise control of electric communication signals may yield significant insights into the diversity of natural mechanisms available for modifying the performance of ion channels in excitable membranes. These mechanisms may lead to better understanding of normal function in a wide range of physiological systems and future application in treatment of disease states involving pathology of excitable membranes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology
  • Animal Communication*
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Circadian Rhythm / physiology
  • Electric Organ / physiology*
  • Gymnotiformes / physiology*
  • Kv1.1 Potassium Channel / genetics
  • Kv1.1 Potassium Channel / physiology
  • Nerve Net / physiology
  • Time Factors


  • Kv1.1 Potassium Channel