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Neural Circuitry Underlying Nociceptive Escape Behavior in Drosophila

Burgos, Anita

Rapid and efficient escape behaviors in response to noxious sensory stimuli are essential for protection and survival. In Drosophila larvae, the class III (cIII) and class IV (cIV) dendritic arborization (da) neurons detect low-threshold mechanosensory and noxious stimuli, respectively. Their axons project to modality-specific locations in the neuropil, reminiscent of vertebrate dorsal horn organization. Despite extensive characterization of nociceptors across organisms, how noxious stimuli are transformed to the coordinated behaviors that protect animals from harm remains poorly understood. In larvae, noxious mechanical and thermal stimuli trigger an escape behavior consisting of sequential C-shape body bending followed by corkscrew-like rolling, and finally an increase in forward locomotion (escape crawl). The downstream circuitry controlling the sequential coordination of escape responses is largely unknown. This work identifies a population of interneurons in the nerve cord, Down-and-Back (DnB) neurons, that are activated by noxious heat, promote nociceptive behavior, and are required for robust escape responses to noxious stimuli. Activation of DnB neurons can trigger both rolling, and the initial C-shape body bend independent of rolling, revealing modularity in the initial nociceptive responses. Electron microscopic circuit reconstruction shows that DnBs receive direct input from nociceptive and mechanosensory neurons, are presynaptic to pre-motor circuits, and link indirectly to a population of command-like neurons (Goro) that control rolling. DnB activation promotes activity in Goro neurons, and coincident inactivation of Goro neurons prevents the rolling sequence but leaves intact body bending motor responses. Thus, activity from nociceptors to DnB interneurons coordinates modular elements of nociceptive escape behavior. The impact of DnB neurons may not be restricted to synaptic partners, as DnB presynaptic sites accumulate dense-core vesicles, suggesting aminergic or peptidergic signaling. Anatomical analyses show that DnB neurons receive spatially segregated input from cIII mechanosensory and cIV nociceptive neurons. However, DnB neurons do not seem to promote or be required for gentle-touch responses, suggesting a modulatory role for cIII input. Behavioral experiments suggest that cIII input presented prior to cIV input can enhance nociceptive behavior. Moreover, weak co-activation of DnB and cIII neurons can also enhance nociceptive responses, particularly C-shape bending. These results indicate that timing and level of cIII activation might determine its modulatory role. Taken together, these studies describe a novel nociceptive circuit, which integrates nociceptive and mechanosensory inputs, and controls modular motor pathways to promote robust escape behavior. Future work on this circuit could reveal neural mechanisms for sequence transitions, peptidergic modulation of nociception, and developmental mechanisms that control convergence of sensory afferents onto common synaptic partners.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Neurobiology and Behavior
Thesis Advisors
Grueber, Wesley B.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 23, 2017