The role of sensory network dynamics in generating a motor program.

Levi, R., Varona, P., Arshavsky, Y. I., Rabinovich, M. I., and Selverston, A. I.
J Neurosci, 25:9807–9815, 2005
DOI, Google Scholar


Sensory input plays a major role in controlling motor responses during most behavioral tasks. The vestibular organs in the marine mollusk Clione, the statocysts, react to the external environment and continuously adjust the tail and wing motor neurons to keep the animal oriented vertically. However, we suggested previously that during hunting behavior, the intrinsic dynamics of the statocyst network produce a spatiotemporal pattern that may control the motor system independently of environmental cues. Once the response is triggered externally, the collective activation of the statocyst neurons produces a complex sequential signal. In the behavioral context of hunting, such network dynamics may be the main determinant of an intricate spatial behavior. Here, we show that (1) during fictive hunting, the population activity of the statocyst receptors is correlated positively with wing and tail motor output suggesting causality, (2) that fictive hunting can be evoked by electrical stimulation of the statocyst network, and (3) that removal of even a few individual statocyst receptors critically changes the fictive hunting motor pattern. These results indicate that the intrinsic dynamics of a sensory network, even without its normal cues, can organize a motor program vital for the survival of the animal.


The authors investigate the neural mechanisms of hunting behaviour in a mollusk. It’s simplicity allows that the nervous system can be completely stripped apart from the rest of the body and be investigated in isolation from the body, but as a whole. In particular, the authors are interested in the causal influence of sensory neurons on motor activity.

The mollusk has two types of behaviour for positioning its body in the water: 1) it uses gravitational sensors (statocysts) to maintain a head-up position in the water under normal circumstances and 2) it swims in apparently chaotic, small loops when it suspects prey in its vicinity (searching). In this paper the authors present evidence that the searching behaviour 2) is still largely dependent on the (internal) dynamics of the statocysts.

The model is as follows (see Varona2002): without prey inhibitory connections between sensory cells in the stratocysts make sure that only a small proportion of cells are firing (those that are activated by mechanoreceptors according to gravitation acting on a stone-like structure in the statocysts), but when prey is in the vicinity of the mollusk (as indicated by e.g. chemoreceptors) cerebral hunting neurons additionally excite the statocyst cells inducing chaotic dynamics between them. The important thing to note is that then the statocysts still influence motor behaviour as shown in the paper. So the argument is that the same mechanism for producing motor output dependent on statocyst signals can be used to generate searching just through changing the activity of the sensory neurons.

Overall the evidence presented in the paper is convincing that statocyst activity influences the activity of the motor neurons also in the searching behaviour, but it cannot be said concludingly that the statocysts are necessary for producing the swimming, because the setup allowed only the activity of motor neurons to be observed without actually seeing the behaviour (actually Levi2004 show that the typical searching behaviour cannot be produced when the statocysts are removed). For the same reason, the experiments also neglected possible feedback mechanisms between body/mollusk and environment, e.g. in the statocyst activity due to changing gravitational state, i.e. orientation. The argument there is, though not explicitly stated, that the statocyst stops computing the actual orientation of the body, but is purely driven through its own dynamics. Feedback from the peripheral motor system is not modelled (Varona2002, argueing that for determining the origin of the apparent chaotic behaviour this is not necessary).

For us this is a nice example for how action can be a direct consequence of perception, but even more so that internal sensory dynamics can produce differentiated motor behaviour. The connection between sensory states and motor activity is relatively fixed, but different motor behaviour may be generated by different processing in the sensory system. The autonomous dynamics of the statocysts in searching behaviour may also be interpreted as being induced from different, high-precision predictions on a higher level. It may be questioned how good a model the mollusk nervous system is for information processing in the human brain, but maybe they share these principles.

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