Active sensing associated with spatial learning reveals memory-based attention in an electric fish

J Neurophysiol. 2016 May 1;115(5):2577-92. doi: 10.1152/jn.00979.2015. Epub 2016 Mar 9.


Active sensing behaviors reveal what an animal is attending to and how it changes with learning. Gymnotus sp, a gymnotiform weakly electric fish, generates an electric organ discharge (EOD) as discrete pulses to actively sense its surroundings. We monitored freely behaving gymnotid fish in a large dark "maze" and extracted their trajectories and EOD pulse pattern and rate while they learned to find food with electrically detectable landmarks as cues. After training, they more rapidly found food using shorter, more stereotyped trajectories and spent more time near the food location. We observed three forms of active sensing: sustained high EOD rates per unit distance (sampling density), transient large increases in EOD rate (E-scans) and stereotyped scanning movements (B-scans) were initially strong at landmarks and food, but, after learning, intensified only at the food location. During probe (no food) trials, after learning, the fish's search area and intense active sampling was still centered on the missing food location, but now also increased near landmarks. We hypothesize that active sensing is a behavioral manifestation of attention and essential for spatial learning; the fish use spatial memory of landmarks and path integration to reach the expected food location and confine their attention to this region.

Keywords: active sensing; attention; landmark-based learning; spatial learning; weakly electric fish.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials
  • Animals
  • Attention*
  • Cues
  • Electric Organ / innervation
  • Electric Organ / physiology*
  • Gymnotiformes
  • Locomotion
  • Memory*
  • Sensory Receptor Cells / physiology
  • Spatial Learning*

Grant support