The Control of Pacemaker Modulations for Social Communication in the Weakly Electric Fish Sternopygus

J Comp Physiol A. 1991 Oct;169(4):441-50. doi: 10.1007/BF00197656.


Nearly sinusoidal electric organ discharges (EODs) of the weakly electric fish Sternopygus, occur at a regular rate within a range from 50 to 200 Hz and are commanded by a medullary pacemaker nucleus (Pn). During courtship and aggression, the rate of EODs is modulated as smooth EOD-frequency rises or brief EOD-interruptions (Hopkins 1974b). The present study examines the control of such modulations. Rises were elicited by L-glutamate stimulation of the diencephalic prepacemaker nucleus, the only previously known source of input to the Pn. We demonstrate an additional input to the Pn, the sublemniscal prepacemaker nucleus (SPPn). L-glutamate stimulation of this area caused EOD-interruptions. The Pn contains electrotonically coupled 'pacemaker cells' which generate the rhythm of the EODs, as well as 'relay cells' which transmit the command pulse to the spinal motor neurons that innervate the electric organ. Pacemaker cells recorded intracellularly during EOD-interruptions continued firing at their regular frequency but with slightly increased jitter. Relay cells, on the other hand, were strongly depolarized and fired spikelets at a greatly increased frequency during EOD-interruptions. Thus EOD-interruptions were caused by SPPn input to relay cells that caused their massive depolarization, blocking the normal input from pacemaker cells without greatly affecting pacemaker cell firing characteristics. Application to the Pn of an antagonist to NMDA-type glutamate receptors blocked EOD-frequency rises and EOD-interruptions. Antagonists to quisqualate/kainate receptor-types were ineffective.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animal Communication*
  • Animals
  • Biological Clocks / physiology*
  • Diencephalon / physiology
  • Electric Fish / physiology*
  • Electric Organ / anatomy & histology
  • Electric Organ / innervation
  • Electric Organ / physiology*
  • Female
  • Glutamates / pharmacology
  • Glutamic Acid
  • Male
  • Mesencephalon / physiology
  • Neural Pathways / drug effects
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Stimulation, Chemical
  • Synapses / drug effects
  • Synapses / physiology
  • Synaptic Transmission / drug effects
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology


  • Glutamates
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate
  • Glutamic Acid