Structural features of crayfish phasic and tonic neuromuscular terminals

J Comp Neurol. 1996 Sep 2;372(4):618-26. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1096-9861(19960902)372:4<618::AID-CNE9>3.0.CO;2-7.


We examined the fine structure of terminals of the phasic and tonic excitatory axon to the crayfish limb extensor muscle. The phasic terminals are known to release 50-100 times more transmitter for a small length of terminal for a single impulse. Phasic terminals labeled with horseradish peroxidase (HRP) were relatively thin and contained a single unbranched mitochondrion; tonic terminals were much thicker, and their varicosities contained several multibranched mitochondria. Tonic terminals devoted a larger proportion of their total volume to mitochondria. The percentage volume of clear synaptic vesicles was slightly higher in phasic axon terminals, but as the tonic axon terminals were fivefold larger in volume, the total synaptic volume is much greater in tonic than phasic terminals. The number of synapses per length of terminal, and the total number of active zones per length of terminal, were greater for tonic terminals, and individual synapses were, on average, slightly larger in surface contact area for tonic terminals. In contrast, individual active zones were, on average, longer in phasic synapses. A higher proportion (50%) of phasic synapses had multiple active zones than was the case for tonic synapses (16%), and pairs of closely spaced active zones were more frequently found on phasic synapses. These findings clearly rule out synapse and active zone number as a factor contributing to higher transmitter output, but suggest that active zone size and synaptic complexity, as evidenced by multiple closely spaced active zones in a single synapse, are likely to play a causal role in the greater transmitter release of the phasic terminal. Even synapse complexity would not be enough to account fully for the large difference in terminal transmitter output, and additional factors may include electrical and biochemical differences.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Astacoidea / anatomy & histology*
  • Astacoidea / physiology
  • Axons / ultrastructure*
  • Muscle, Skeletal / innervation*
  • Nerve Endings / physiology
  • Nerve Endings / ultrastructure*
  • Neuromuscular Junction / physiology
  • Neuromuscular Junction / ultrastructure*
  • Reaction Time / physiology*