Encoding properties of the mechanosensory neurons in the Johnston's organ of the hawk moth, Manduca sexta

J Exp Biol. 2014 Sep 1;217(Pt 17):3045-56. doi: 10.1242/jeb.101568. Epub 2014 Jun 19.


Antennal mechanosensors play a key role in control and stability of insect flight. In addition to the well-established role of antennae as airflow detectors, recent studies have indicated that the sensing of antennal vibrations by Johnston's organs also provides a mechanosensory feedback relevant for flight stabilization. However, few studies have addressed how the individual units, or scolopidia, of the Johnston's organs encode these antennal vibrations and communicate it to the brain. Here, we characterize the encoding properties of individual scolopidia from the Johnston's organs in the hawk moth, Manduca sexta, through intracellular neurophysiological recordings from axons of the scolopidial neurons. We stimulated the flagellum-pedicel joint using a custom setup that delivered mechanical stimuli of various (step, sinusoidal, frequency and amplitude sweeps) waveforms. Single units of the Johnston's organs typically displayed phaso-tonic responses to step stimuli with short (3-5 ms) latencies. Their phase-locked response to sinusoidal stimuli in the 0.1-100 Hz frequency range showed high fidelity (vector strengths>0.9). The neurons were able to encode different phases of the stimulus motion and were also extremely sensitive to small amplitude (<0.05 deg) deflections with some indication of directional tuning. In many cases, the firing frequency of the neurons varied linearly as a function of the stimulus frequency at wingbeat and double wingbeat frequencies, which may be relevant to their role in flight stabilization. Iontophoretic fills of these neurons with fluorescent dyes showed that they all projected in the antennal mechanosensory and motor center (AMMC) area of the brain. Taken together, these results showcase the speed and high sensitivity of scolopidia of the Johnston's organs, and hence their ability to encode fine antennal vibrations.

Keywords: Antennae; Electrophysiology; Flight; Johnston's organ; Lepidoptera; Mechanosensors; Scolopidia.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arthropod Antennae / innervation*
  • Brain / anatomy & histology*
  • Flight, Animal
  • Manduca / anatomy & histology
  • Manduca / physiology*
  • Mechanoreceptors / physiology*
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Vibration*