The effects of temperature on the stability of a neuronal oscillator

PLoS Comput Biol. 2013;9(1):e1002857. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002857. Epub 2013 Jan 10.


The crab Cancer borealis undergoes large daily fluctuations in environmental temperature (8-24°C) and must maintain appropriate neural function in the face of this perturbation. In the pyloric circuit of the crab stomatogastric ganglion, we pharmacologically isolated the pacemaker kernel (the AB and PD neurons) and characterized its behavior in response to temperature ramps from 7°C to 31°C. For moderate temperatures, the pacemaker displayed a frequency-temperature curve statistically indistinguishable from that of the intact circuit, and like the intact circuit maintained a constant duty cycle. At high temperatures (above 23°C), a variety of different behaviors were seen: in some preparations the pacemaker increased in frequency, in some it slowed, and in many preparations the pacemaker stopped oscillating ("crashed"). Furthermore, these crashes seemed to fall into two qualitatively different classes. Additionally, the animal-to-animal variability in frequency increased at high temperatures. We used a series of Morris-Lecar mathematical models to gain insight into these phenomena. The biophysical components of the final model have temperature sensitivities similar to those found in nature, and can crash via two qualitatively different mechanisms that resemble those observed experimentally. The crash type is determined by the precise parameters of the model at the reference temperature, 11°C, which could explain why some preparations seem to crash in one way and some in another. Furthermore, even models with very similar behavior at the reference temperature diverge greatly at high temperatures, resembling the experimental observations.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Crustacea / physiology*
  • Models, Biological
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Temperature*