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J Neurophysiol. 2011 Jan;105(1):130-44. doi: 10.1152/jn.00507.2010. Epub 2010 Oct 27.

Local-distributed integration by a novel neuron ensures rapid initiation of animal locomotion.

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Department of Biology, University of Virginia, P.O. Box 400328, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4328, USA.


Animals are adapted to respond quickly to threats in their environment. In many invertebrate and some vertebrate species, the evolutionary pressures have resulted in rapidly conducting giant axons, which allow short response times. Although neural circuits mediating escape behavior are identified in several species, little attention has been paid to this behavior in the medicinal leech, a model organism whose neuronal circuits are well known. We present data that suggest an alternative to giant axons for the rapid initiation of locomotion. A novel individual neuron, cell E21, appears to be one mediator of this short-latency action in the leech. In isolated nerve cord and semi-intact preparations, cell E21 excitation initiates and extends swimming and reduces the cycle period. The soma of this cell is located caudally, but its axon extends nearly the entire length of the nerve cord. We found that cell E21 fires impulses following local sensory inputs anywhere along the body and makes excitatory synapses onto the gating cells that drive swimming behavior. These distributed input-output sites minimize the distance information travels to initiate swimming behavior, thus minimizing the latency between sensory input and motor output. We propose that this single cell E21 functions to rapidly initiate or modulate locomotion through its distributed synaptic connections.

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