Central patterns generators (CPGs) are neural circuits that drive rhythmic motor output without sensory feedback. Vertebrate CPGs are generally believed to operate in a top-down manner in which premotor interneurons activate motor neurons that in turn drive muscles. In contrast, the frog (Xenopus laevis) vocal CPG contains a functionally unexplored neuronal projection from the motor nucleus to the premotor nucleus, indicating a recurrent pathway that may contribute to rhythm generation. In this study we characterized the function of this bottom-up connection. The X. laevis vocal CPG produces a 50 — 60 Hz “fast trill” song used by males during courtship. We recorded “fictive vocalizations” in the in vitro CPG from the laryngeal nerve while simultaneously recording premotor activity at the population and single-cell level. We show that transecting the motor-to-premotor projection eliminated the characteristic firing rate of premotor neurons. Silencing motor neurons with the intracellular sodium channel blocker QX-314 also disrupted premotor rhythms, as did blockade of nicotinic synapses in the motor nucleus (the putative location of motor neuron-to-interneuron connections). Electrically stimulating the laryngeal nerve elicited primarily inhibitory post-synaptic potentials in premotor neurons that could be blocked by a nicotinic receptor antagonist. Our results indicate that an inhibitory signal, activated by motor neurons, is required for proper CPG function. To our knowledge, these findings represent the first example of a CPG in which precise premotor rhythms are tuned by motor neuron activity.
Central pattern generators (CPGs) are neural circuits that produce rhythmic behaviors. In vertebrates, motor neurons are not commonly known to contribute to CPG function, with the exception of a few spinal circuits where the functional significance of motor neuron feedback is still poorly understood. The frog hindbrain vocal circuit contains a previously unexplored connection from the motor to premotor region. Our results indicate that motor neurons activate this bottom-up connection, and blocking this signal eliminates normal premotor activity. These findings may promote increased awareness of potential involvement of motor neurons in a wider range of CPGs, perhaps clarifying our understanding of network principles underlying motor behaviors in numerous organisms, including humans.
We thank Charlotte Barkan and two anonymous reviewers for helpful feedback on the manuscript. This work was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NS091977) and start-up funds from Reed College. The authors declare no competing financial interests.