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Dev Neurobiol. 2010 May;70(6):408-23. doi: 10.1002/dneu.20785.

Visual experience and age affect synaptic organization in the mushroom bodies of the desert ant Cataglyphis fortis.

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Department of Behavioral Physiology and Sociobiology, Biozentrum, University of Würzburg, Germany.


Desert ants of the genus Cataglyphis undergo an age-related polyethism from interior workers involved in brood care and food processing to short-lived outdoor foragers with remarkable visual navigation capabilities. The quick transition from dark to light suggests that visual centers in the ant's brain express a high degree of plasticity. To investigate structural synaptic plasticity in the mushroom bodies (MBs)-sensory integration centers supposed to be involved in learning and memory-we immunolabeled and quantified pre- and postsynaptic profiles of synaptic complexes (microglomeruli, MG) in the visual (collar) and olfactory (lip) input regions of the MB calyx. The results show that a volume increase of the MB calyx during behavioral transition is associated with a decrease in MG numbers in the collar and, less pronounced, in the lip. Analysis of tubulin-positive profiles indicates that presynaptic pruning of projection neurons and dendritic expansion in intrinsic Kenyon cells are involved. Light-exposure of dark-reared ants of different age classes revealed similar effects. The results indicate that this structural synaptic plasticity in the MB calyx is primarily driven by visual experience rather than by an internal program. This is supported by the fact that dark-reared ants age-matched to foragers had MG numbers comparable to those of interior workers. Ants aged artificially for up to 1 year expressed a similar plasticity. These results suggest that the high degree of neuronal plasticity in visual input regions of the MB calyx may be an important factor related to behavior transitions associated with division of labor.

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