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Encoding of Tactile Stimuli by Mechanoreceptors and Interneurons of the Medicinal Leech

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Gerrit HilgenORCiD



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


For many animals processing of tactile information is a crucial task in behavioral contexts like exploration, foraging, and stimulus avoidance. The leech, having infrequent access to food, developed an energy efficient reaction to tactile stimuli, avoiding unnecessary muscle movements: The local bend behavior moves only a small part of the body wall away from an object touching the skin, while the rest of the animal remains stationary. Amazingly, the precision of this localized behavioral response is similar to the spatial discrimination threshold of the human fingertip, although the leech skin is innervated by an order of magnitude fewer mechanoreceptors and each midbody ganglion contains only 400 individually identified neurons in total. Prior studies suggested that this behavior is controlled by a three-layered feed-forward network, consisting of four mechanoreceptors (P cells), approximately 20 interneurons and 10 individually characterized motor neurons, all of which encode tactile stimulus location by overlapping, symmetrical tuning curves. Additionally, encoding of mechanical force was attributed to three types of mechanoreceptors reacting to distinct intensity ranges: T cells for touch, P cells for pressure, and N cells for strong, noxious skin stimulation. In this study, we provide evidences that tactile stimulus encoding in the leech is more complex than previously thought. Combined electrophysiological, anatomical, and voltage sensitive dye approaches indicate that P and T cells both play a major role in tactile information processing resulting in local bending. Our results indicate that tactile encoding neither relies on distinct force intensity ranges of different cell types, nor location encoding is restricted to spike count tuning. Instead, we propose that P and T cells form a mixed type population, which simultaneously employs temporal response features and spike counts for multiplexed encoding of touch location and force intensity. This hypothesis is supported by our finding that previously identified local bend interneurons receive input from both P and T cells. Some of these interneurons seem to integrate mechanoreceptor inputs, while others appear to use temporal response cues, presumably acting as coincidence detectors. Further voltage sensitive dye studies can test these hypotheses how a tiny nervous system performs highly precise stimulus processing.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Kretzberg J, Pirschel F, Fathiazar E, Hilgen G

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Frontiers in Physiology

Year: 2016

Volume: 7

Pages: 1-15

Print publication date: 28/10/2016

Online publication date: 24/10/2016

Acceptance date: 14/10/2016

Date deposited: 01/11/2016

ISSN (electronic): 1664-042X

Publisher: Frontiers Research Foundation


DOI: 10.3389/fphys.2016.00506


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