Motor neuronal activity varies least among individuals when it matters most for behavior

J Neurophysiol. 2015 Feb 1;113(3):981-1000. doi: 10.1152/jn.00729.2014. Epub 2014 Nov 19.


How does motor neuronal variability affect behavior? To explore this question, we quantified activity of multiple individual identified motor neurons mediating biting and swallowing in intact, behaving Aplysia californica by recording from the protractor muscle and the three nerves containing the majority of motor neurons controlling the feeding musculature. We measured multiple motor components: duration of the activity of identified motor neurons as well as their relative timing. At the same time, we measured behavioral efficacy: amplitude of grasping movement during biting and amplitude of net inward food movement during swallowing. We observed that the total duration of the behaviors varied: Within animals, biting duration shortened from the first to the second and third bites; between animals, biting and swallowing durations varied. To study other sources of variation, motor components were divided by behavior duration (i.e., normalized). Even after normalization, distributions of motor component durations could distinguish animals as unique individuals. However, the degree to which a motor component varied among individuals depended on the role of that motor component in a behavior. Motor neuronal activity that was essential for the expression of biting or swallowing was similar among animals, whereas motor neuronal activity that was not essential for that behavior varied more from individual to individual. These results suggest that motor neuronal activity that matters most for the expression of a particular behavior may vary least from individual to individual. Shaping individual variability to ensure behavioral efficacy may be a general principle for the operation of motor systems.

Keywords: Aplysia californica; individuality; motor control; pattern generator; variability.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials*
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Animals
  • Aplysia
  • Deglutition*
  • Eating
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Motor Neurons / physiology*
  • Muscle, Skeletal / innervation
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology