Flexible motor sequence generation during stereotyped escape responses

Elife. 2020 Jun 5;9:e56942. doi: 10.7554/eLife.56942.


Complex animal behaviors arise from a flexible combination of stereotyped motor primitives. Here we use the escape responses of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans to study how a nervous system dynamically explores the action space. The initiation of the escape responses is predictable: the animal moves away from a potential threat, a mechanical or thermal stimulus. But the motor sequence and the timing that follow are variable. We report that a feedforward excitation between neurons encoding distinct motor states underlies robust motor sequence generation, while mutual inhibition between these neurons controls the flexibility of timing in a motor sequence. Electrical synapses contribute to feedforward coupling whereas glutamatergic synapses contribute to inhibition. We conclude that C. elegans generates robust and flexible motor sequences by combining an excitatory coupling and a winner-take-all operation via mutual inhibition between motor modules.

Keywords: C. elegans; escape response; feedforward excitation; motor sequence generation; mutual inhibition; neuroscience; winner-take-all.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / physiology*
  • Electrical Synapses
  • Escape Reaction*
  • Female
  • Male
  • Motor Activity
  • Nervous System Physiological Phenomena
  • Neural Inhibition