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J Comp Neurol. 2011 Jul 1;519(10):1979-98. doi: 10.1002/cne.22617.

Axon cap morphology of the sea robin (Prionotus carolinus): Mauthner cell is correlated with the presence of "signature" field potentials and a C-type startle response.

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  • 1Department of Biology, Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts 01267, USA.


Studies on the Mauthner cell (M-cell) of goldfish, Carassius auratus, have facilitated our understanding of how sensory information is integrated in the hindbrain to initiate C-type fast startle responses (C-starts). The goldfish M-cell initial segment/axon hillock is surrounded by a composite axon cap consisting of a central core and a peripheral zone covered by a glial cell layer. The high resistivity of the axon cap results in "signature" field potentials recorded on activation of the M-cell, allowing unequivocal physiological identification of the M-cell and of its feedback and reciprocal inhibitory networks that are crucial in ensuring that only one M-cell is active and that it fires only once. Phylogenetic mapping of axon cap morphology to muscle activity patterns and behavior predicts that teleost fishes that have a composite axon cap, like that of the goldfish, will perform C-start behavior with primarily unilateral muscle activity. We have chosen to study these predictions in the northern sea robin, Prionotus carolinus, a percomorph fish. Although sea robins have a very different phylogenetic position, body form, and habitat compared with the goldfish, they display the correlation of axon cap morphology to physiology and C-start behavior. Differences in response parameters suggest some evolutionary trade-offs in sea robin C-start behavior compared with that of the goldfish, but the correlations in morphology, physiology, and behavior are common features of both otophysan and nonotophysan teleosts. The M-cell will continue to provide an unprecedented opportunity to study the evolution of a neural circuit in the context of behavior.

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