Molluscan neurons in culture: shedding light on synapse formation and plasticity

J Mol Histol. 2012 Aug;43(4):383-99. doi: 10.1007/s10735-012-9398-y. Epub 2012 Apr 27.


From genes to behaviour, the simple model system approach has played many pivotal roles in deciphering nervous system function in both invertebrates and vertebrates. However, with the advent of sophisticated imaging and recording techniques enabling the direct investigation of single vertebrate neurons, the utility of simple invertebrate organisms as model systems has been put to question. To address this subject meaningfully and comprehensively, we first review the contributions made by invertebrates in the field of neuroscience over the years, paving the way for similar breakthroughs in higher animals. In particular, we focus on molluscan (Lymnaea, Aplysia, and Helisoma) and leech (Hirudo) models and the pivotal roles they have played in elucidating mechanisms of synapse formation and plasticity. While the ultimate goal in neuroscience is to understand the workings of the human brain in both its normal and diseased states, the sheer complexity of most vertebrate models still makes it difficult to define the underlying principles of nervous system function. Investigators have thus turned to invertebrate models, which are unique with respect to their simple nervous systems that are endowed with a finite number of large, individually identifiable neurons of known function. We start off by discussing in vivo and semi-intact preparations, regarding their amenability to simple circuit analysis. Despite the 'simplicity' of invertebrate nervous systems however, it is still difficult to study individual synaptic connections in detail. We therefore emphasize in the next section, the utility of studying identified invertebrate neurons in vitro, to directly examine the development, specificity, and plasticity of synaptic connections in a well-defined environment, at a resolution that it is still unapproachable in the intact brain. We conclude with a discussion of the future of invertebrates in neuroscience in elucidating mechanisms of neurological disease and developing neuron-silicon interfaces.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Culture Techniques
  • Electrical Synapses / physiology
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology
  • Memory / physiology
  • Mollusca* / cytology
  • Mollusca* / physiology
  • Neurogenesis / physiology*
  • Neuronal Plasticity*
  • Neurons* / cytology
  • Neurons* / physiology
  • Regeneration / physiology
  • Synapses / physiology*