Prepontine non-giant neurons drive flexible escape behavior in zebrafish

PLoS Biol. 2019 Oct 15;17(10):e3000480. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3000480. eCollection 2019 Oct.


Many species execute ballistic escape reactions to avoid imminent danger. Despite fast reaction times, responses are often highly regulated, reflecting a trade-off between costly motor actions and perceived threat level. However, how sensory cues are integrated within premotor escape circuits remains poorly understood. Here, we show that in zebrafish, less precipitous threats elicit a delayed escape, characterized by flexible trajectories, which are driven by a cluster of 38 prepontine neurons that are completely separate from the fast escape pathway. Whereas neurons that initiate rapid escapes receive direct auditory input and drive motor neurons, input and output pathways for delayed escapes are indirect, facilitating integration of cross-modal sensory information. These results show that rapid decision-making in the escape system is enabled by parallel pathways for ballistic responses and flexible delayed actions and defines a neuronal substrate for hierarchical choice in the vertebrate nervous system.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Decision Making / physiology
  • Escape Reaction / physiology*
  • Larva / physiology
  • Motor Cortex / cytology
  • Motor Cortex / physiology*
  • Motor Neurons / cytology
  • Motor Neurons / physiology*
  • Pattern Recognition, Physiological / physiology*
  • Pons / cytology
  • Pons / physiology*
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Zebrafish / physiology*

Grant support

This work was supported by the Intramural Research Programs of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health and Human Development ( to HAB and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke ( to KLB. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.