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J Exp Biol. 2011 Mar 15;214(Pt 6):1028-38. doi: 10.1242/jeb.048876.

Neural circuit activity in freely behaving zebrafish (Danio rerio).

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Department of Physiology, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1751, USA.


Examining neuronal network activity in freely behaving animals is advantageous for probing the function of the vertebrate central nervous system. Here, we describe a simple, robust technique for monitoring the activity of neural circuits in unfettered, freely behaving zebrafish (Danio rerio). Zebrafish respond to unexpected tactile stimuli with short- or long-latency escape behaviors, which are mediated by distinct neural circuits. Using dipole electrodes immersed in the aquarium, we measured electric field potentials generated in muscle during short- and long-latency escapes. We found that activation of the underlying neural circuits produced unique field potential signatures that are easily recognized and can be repeatedly monitored. In conjunction with behavioral analysis, we used this technique to track changes in the pattern of circuit activation during the first week of development in animals whose trigeminal sensory neurons were unilaterally ablated. One day post-ablation, the frequency of short- and long-latency responses was significantly lower on the ablated side than on the intact side. Three days post-ablation, a significant fraction of escapes evoked by stimuli on the ablated side was improperly executed, with the animal turning towards rather than away from the stimulus. However, the overall response rate remained low. Seven days post-ablation, the frequency of escapes increased dramatically and the percentage of improperly executed escapes declined. Our results demonstrate that trigeminal ablation results in rapid reconfiguration of the escape circuitry, with reinnervation by new sensory neurons and adaptive changes in behavior. This technique is valuable for probing the activity, development, plasticity and regeneration of neural circuits under natural conditions.

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