Differential processing in modality-specific Mauthner cell dendrites

J Physiol. 2018 Feb 15;596(4):667-689. doi: 10.1113/JP274861. Epub 2017 Dec 18.


Key points: The present study examines dendritic integrative processes that occur in many central neurons but have been challenging to study in vivo in the vertebrate brain. The Mauthner cell of goldfish receives auditory and visual information via two separate dendrites, providing a privileged scenario for in vivo examination of dendritic integration. The results show differential attenuation properties in the Mauthner cell dendrites arising at least partly from differences in cable properties and the nonlinear behaviour of the respective dendritic membranes. In addition to distinct modality-dependent membrane specialization in neighbouring dendrites of the Mauthner cell, we report cross-modal dendritic interactions via backpropagating postsynaptic potentials. Broadly, the results of the present study provide an exceptional example for the processing power of single neurons.

Abstract: Animals process multimodal information for adaptive behavioural decisions. In fish, evasion of a diving bird that breaks the water surface depends on integrating visual and auditory stimuli with very different characteristics. How do neurons process such differential sensory inputs at the dendritic level? For that, we studied the Mauthner cells (M-cells) in the goldfish startle circuit, which receive visual and auditory inputs via two separate dendrites, both accessible for in vivo recordings. We investigated whether electrophysiological membrane properties and dendrite morphology, studied in vivo, play a role in selective sensory processing in the M-cell. The results obtained show that anatomical and electrophysiological differences between the dendrites combine to produce stronger attenuation of visually evoked postsynaptic potentials (PSPs) than to auditory evoked PSPs. Interestingly, our recordings showed also cross-modal dendritic interaction because auditory evoked PSPs invade the ventral dendrite (VD), as well as the opposite where visual PSPs invade the lateral dendrite (LD). However, these interactions were asymmetrical, with auditory PSPs being more prominent in the VD than visual PSPs in the LD. Modelling experiments imply that this asymmetry is caused by active conductances expressed in the proximal segments of the VD. The results obtained in the present study suggest modality-dependent membrane specialization in M-cell dendrites suited for processing stimuli of different time domains and, more broadly, provide a compelling example of information processing in single neurons.

Keywords: Mauthner cell; cross-modal dendritic interaction; dendritic specialization.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Animals
  • Dendrites / physiology*
  • Evoked Potentials, Auditory*
  • Goldfish
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Neurons / cytology
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Reflex, Startle
  • Synapses / physiology*