Variable neuronal participation in stereotypic motor programs

PLoS One. 2012;7(7):e40579. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0040579. Epub 2012 Jul 16.


To what extent are motor networks underlying rhythmic behaviors rigidly hard-wired versus fluid and dynamic entities? Do the members of motor networks change from moment-to-moment or from motor program episode-to-episode? These are questions that can only be addressed in systems where it is possible to monitor the spiking activity of networks of neurons during the production of motor programs. We used large-scale voltage-sensitive dye (VSD) imaging followed by Independent Component Analysis spike-sorting to examine the extent to which the neuronal network underlying the escape swim behavior of Tritonia diomedea is hard-wired versus fluid from a moment-to-moment perspective. We found that while most neurons were dedicated to the swim network, a small but significant proportion of neurons participated in a surprisingly variable manner. These neurons joined the swim motor program late, left early, burst only on some cycles or skipped cycles of the motor program. We confirmed that this variable neuronal participation was not due to effects of the VSD by finding such neurons with intracellular recording in dye-free saline. Further, these neurons markedly varied their level of participation in the network from swim episode-to-episode. The generality of such unreliably bursting neurons was confirmed by their presence in the rhythmic escape networks of two other molluscan species, Tritonia festiva and Aplysia californica. Our observations support a view that neuronal networks, even those underlying rhythmic and stereotyped motor programs, may be more variable in structure than widely appreciated.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Aplysia / cytology
  • Aplysia / physiology
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology
  • Motor Activity / physiology*
  • Nerve Net / cytology
  • Nerve Net / physiology
  • Neurons / cytology
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Optical Imaging
  • Swimming / physiology