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The spinal cord is a prime example of how the central nervous system has evolved to execute and retain movements adapted to the environment. This results from the evolution of inborn intrinsic spinal circuits modified continuously by repetitive interactions with the outside world, as well as by developing internal needs or goals. This article emphasizes the underlying neuroplastic spinal mechanisms through observations of normal animal adaptive locomotor behavior in different imposed conditions. It further explores the motor spinal capabilities after various types of lesions to the spinal cord and the potential mechanisms underlying the spinal changes occurring after these lesions, leading to recovery of function. Together, these observations strengthen the idea of the immense potential of the motor rehabilitation approach in humans with spinal cord injury since extrinsic interventions (training, pharmacology, and electrical stimulation) can modulate and optimize remnant motor functions after injury.
Aleksandra Polosukhina and Pierre-Marie Lledo
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Neuroscience. Please check back later for the full article.
In adult mammals, the olfactory bulb and the hippocampus are the regions in the brain that undergo continuous neurogenesis (production and recruitment of newborn neurons). While the other regions of the brain still retain a certain degree of plasticity after birth, they no longer can integrate new neurons. In rodents, thousands of adult-born neurons integrate into the bulb each day, and this process has been found to contribute not only to sensory function, but also to olfactory memory. This was a surprising finding, since historically the adult-brain has been viewed as a static organ. Understanding the process of regeneration of mature neurons in the brain has great potential for therapeutic applications. Consequently, this process of adult-neurogenesis has received widespread attention from clinicians and scientists.
Neuroblasts bound for the olfactory bulb are produced in the subventricular zone of the lateral ventricle. Once they reach the olfactory bulb, they mostly develop into inhibitory interneurons called granule cells. Just after one month, about half of the adult-born neurons are eliminated, and the other half fully integrate and function in the olfactory bulb. These cells not only process information from the sensory neurons in the bulb, but also receive massive innervation from various regions of the brain, including the olfactory cortex, locus coeruleus, the horizontal limb of diagonal band of Broca, and the dorsal raphe nucleus. The sensory (bottom-up) and cortical (top-down) activity has been found to play a vital role in the adult-born granule cell survival. Though the exact purpose of these newborn neurons has not been identified, some emerging functions include maintenance of olfactory bulb circuitry, modulating sensory information, modulating olfactory learning, and memory.
Robert S. Bridges
Prolactin (PRL) is a protein hormone with a molecular weight of approximately 23 KD, although variants in size exist. It binds to receptor dimers on the cytoplasmic surface of its target cells and acts primarily through the activation of the STAT5 pathway, which in turn alters gene activity. Pituitary prolactin, while being the main, but not only, source of PRL, is primarily under inhibitory control by hypothalamic dopaminergic neurons. Release of dopamine (DA) into the hypothalamo-hypophyseal portal system binds on DA D2 receptors on PRL-producing lactotrophs within the anterior pituitary gland. Prolactin’s functions include the regulation of behaviors that include maternal care, anxiety, and feeding as well as lactogenesis, hepatic bile formation, immune function, corpora lutea function, and more generally cell proliferation and differentiation. Dysfunctional conditions related to prolactin’s actions include its role in erectile dysfunction and male infertility, mood disorders such as depression during the postpartum period, possible roles in breast and hepatic cancer, prostate hyperplasia, galactorrhea, obesity, immune function, and diabetes. Future studies will further elucidate both the underlying mechanisms of prolactin action together with prolactin’s involvement in these clinical disorders.
Mindaugas Mitkus, Simon Potier, Graham R. Martin, Olivier Duriez, and Almut Kelber
Diurnal raptors (birds of the orders Accipitriformes and Falconiformes), renowned for their extraordinarily sharp eyesight, have fascinated humans for centuries. The high visual acuity in some raptor species is possible due to their large eyes, both in relative and absolute terms, and a high density of cone photoreceptors. Some large raptors, such as wedge-tailed eagles and the Old World vultures, have visual acuities twice as high as humans and six times as high as ostriches—the animals with the largest terrestrial eyes. The raptor retina has rods, double cones, and four spectral types of single cones. The highest density of single cones occurs in one or two specialized retinal regions: the foveae, where, at least in some species, rods and double cones are absent. The deep central fovea allows for the highest acuity in the lateral visual field that is probably used for detecting prey from a large distance. Pursuit-hunting raptors have a second, shallower, temporal fovea that allows for sharp vision in the frontal field of view. Scavenging carrion eaters do not possess a temporal fovea that may indicate different needs in foraging behavior. Moreover, pursuit-hunting and scavenging raptors also differ in configuration of visual fields, with a more extensive field of view in scavengers.
The eyes of diurnal raptors, unlike those of most other birds, are not very sensitive to ultraviolet light, which is strongly absorbed by their cornea and lens. As a result of the low density of rods, and the narrow and densely packed single cones in the central fovea, the visual performance of diurnal raptors drops dramatically as light levels decrease. These and other visual properties underpin prey detection and pursuit and show how these birds’ vision is adapted to make them successful diurnal predators.
Thomas F. Mathejczyk and Mathias F. Wernet
Evolution has produced vast morphological and behavioral diversity amongst insects, including very successful adaptations to a diverse range of ecological niches spanning the invasion of the sky by flying insects, the crawling lifestyle on (or below) the earth, and the (semi-)aquatic life on (or below) the water surface. Developing the ability to extract a maximal amount of useful information from their environment was crucial for ensuring the survival of many insect species. Navigating insects rely heavily on a combination of different visual and non-visual cues to reliably orient under a wide spectrum of environmental conditions while avoiding predators. The pattern of linearly polarized skylight that results from scattering of sunlight in the atmosphere is one important navigational cue that many insects can detect. Here we summarize progress made toward understanding how different insect species sense polarized light. First, we present behavioral studies with “true” insect navigators (central-place foragers, like honeybees or desert ants), as well as insects that rely on polarized light to improve more “basic” orientation skills (like dung beetles). Second, we provide an overview over the anatomical basis of the polarized light detection system that these insects use, as well as the underlying neural circuitry. Third, we emphasize the importance of physiological studies (electrophysiology, as well as genetically encoded activity indicators, in Drosophila) for understanding both the structure and function of polarized light circuitry in the insect brain. We also discuss the importance of an alternative source of polarized light that can be detected by many insects: linearly polarized light reflected off shiny surfaces like water represents an important environmental factor, yet the anatomy and physiology of underlying circuits remain incompletely understood.
Sabra L. Klein and Jaclyn M. Schwarz
Sex is a biological variable that affects immune responses to both self and foreign antigens (e.g., microbial infections) in the central nervous system (CNS) as well as in peripheral organs. The sex of an individual is defined by the differential determination of the sex chromosomes, the organization of the reproductive organs, and the subsequent sex steroid hormone levels in males and females. Sex is distinct from gender, which includes self-identification as being a male or female as well as behaviors and activities that are determined by society or culture in humans. Male and female differences in immunological responses may be influenced by both sex and gender, with sex contributing to the physiological and anatomical differences that influence exposure, recognition, clearance, and even transmission of microbes in males and females. By contrast, gender may reflect behaviors that influence exposure to microbes, access to health care, or health-seeking behaviors that indirectly affect the course of infection in males and females. Though both sex and gender influence the immune response, the focus of this article is the biological factors that influence immunological differences between the sexes in both the CNS and peripheral tissues to alter the course of diseases across the life span.
Understanding of the brain mechanisms regulating reproductive behaviors in female laboratory animals has been aided greatly by our knowledge of estrogen receptors in the brain. Hypothalamic neurons that express the gene for estrogen receptor-alpha regulate activity in the neural circuit for the simplest female reproductive response, lordosis behavior. In turn, many of the neurotransmitter inputs to the critical hypothalamic neurons have been studied using electrophysiological and neurochemical techniques. The upshot of all of these studies is that lordosis behavior presents the best understood set of mechanisms for any mammalian behavior.
Jacques Balthazart and Gregory F. Ball
It is well established that testosterone from testicular origin plays a critical role in the activation of male sexual behavior in most, if not all, vertebrate species. These effects take place to a large extent in the preoptic area although other brain sites are obviously also implicated. In its target areas, testosterone is actively metabolized either into estrogenic and androgenic steroids that have specific behavioral effects or into inactive metabolites. These transformations either amplify the behavioral activity of testosterone or, alternatively, metabolism to an inactive compound dissipates any biological effect. Androgens and estrogens then bind to nuclear receptors that modulate the transcription of specific genes. This process is controlled by a variety of co-activators and co-repressors that, respectively, enhance or inhibit these transcriptional processes. In addition, recent work has shown that the production of estrogens by brain aromatase can be modulated within minutes by changes in neural activity and that these rapid changes in neuroestrogen production impact sexual behavior, in particular sexual motivation within the same time frame. Estrogens thus affect specific aspects of male sexual behavior in two different time frames via two types of mechanisms that are completely different. Multiple questions remain open concerning the cellular brain mechanisms that mediate testosterone action on male sexual behavior.
Alyssa L. Pedersen and Colin J. Saldanha
Given the profound influence of steroids on the organization and activation of the vertebrate central nervous system (CNS), it is perhaps not surprising that these molecules are involved in processes that restructure the cytoarchitecture of the brain. This includes processes such as neurogenesis and the connectivity of neural circuits. In the last 30 years or so, we have learned that the adult vertebrate brain is far from static; it responds to changes in androgens and estrogens, with dramatic alterations in structure and function. Some of these changes have been directly linked to behavior, including sex, social dominance, communication, and memory. Perhaps the most dramatic levels of neuroplasticity are observed in teleosts, where circulating and centrally derived steroids can affect several end points, including cell proliferation, migration, and behavior. Similarly, in passerine songbirds and mammals, testosterone and estradiol are important modulators of adult neuroplasticity, with documented effects on areas of the brain necessary for complex behaviors, including social communication, reproduction, and learning. Given that many of the cellular processes that underlie neuroplasticity are often energetically demanding and temporally protracted, it is somewhat surprising that steroids can affect physiological and behavioral end points quite rapidly. This includes recent demonstrations of extremely rapid effects of estradiol on synaptic neurotransmission and behavior in songbirds and mammals. Indeed, we are only beginning to appreciate the role of temporally and spatially constrained neurosteroidogenesis, like estradiol and testosterone being made in the brain, on the rapid regulation of complex behaviors.
The crustacean stomatogastric nervous system contains a set of distinct but interacting rhythmic motor circuits that control movements of the foregut. When isolated, these circuits produce activity patterns that are almost perfect replicas of their behavior in vivo. The ease with which distinct circuit neurons are identified, recorded, and manipulated has provided considerable insight into the general principles of how motor circuits operate and are controlled at the cellular level. The small number of relatively large neurons has facilitated several technical advances in neuroscience research and allowed the identification of one of the earliest circuit connectomes. This enabled, for the first time, studies of circuit dynamics using the relationships between all component neurons of a nervous center. A major discovery was that circuits are not dedicated to producing a single neuronal activity pattern, and that the involved neurons are not committed to particular circuits. This flexibility results predominantly from the ability of neuromodulators to change the cellular and synaptic properties of circuit neurons. The relatively unique access to, and detailed documentation of, identified circuit, sensory, and descending pathways has also started new avenues into examining how individual modulatory neurons and transmitters affect their target cells. Groundbreaking experimental and modeling work has further demonstrated that the intrinsic properties of neurons depend on their recent history of activation and that neurons and circuits counterbalance destabilizing influences by compensatory homeostatic regulation of ionic conductances. The stomatogastric microcircuits continue to provide key insight into neural circuit operation in numerically larger and less accessible systems.
Thomas W. Cronin, N. Justin Marshall, and Roy L. Caldwell
The predatory stomatopod crustaceans, or mantis shrimp, are among the most attractive and dynamic creatures living in the sea. Their special features include their powerful raptorial appendages, used to kill, stun, or disable other animals (whether predators, prey, or competitors), and their highly specialized compound eyes. Mantis shrimp vision is unlike that of any other animal and has several unique features. Their compound eyes are optically triple, each having three separate regions that produce overlapping visual fields viewing certain regions of space. They have the most diverse set of spectral classes of receptors ever described in animals, with as many as 16 types in a single compound eye. These receptors are based on a highly duplicated set of opsin molecules paired with strongly absorbing photostable filters in some photoreceptor types. The receptor set includes six ultraviolet types, all spectrally distinct, many themselves tuned by photostable filters. There are as many as eight types of polarization receptors of up to three spectral classes (including an ultraviolet class). In some species, two sets of these receptors analyze circularly polarized light, another unique capability. Stomatopod eyes move independently, each capable of visual field stabilization, image foveation and tracking, or scanning of image features. Stomatopods are known to recognize colors and polarization features and evidently use these in predation and communication. Altogether, mantis shrimps have perhaps the most unusual vision of any animal.
We live in an approximately 24-hour world and circadian rhythms have evolved to adapt organisms to the opportunities presented by Earth’s 24-hour cycle of light and dark. A “master clock” located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the brain orchestrates daily rhythms in all manner of behavioral, endocrine, metabolic, autonomic, and homeostatic systems in our bodies. The SCN is comprised of about 20,000 neurons and about one third as many astroglia. How can so few neurons and astroglia guide so many rhythms? How do neurons time out an interval as long as a day? The answers are a case study in understanding how genes within cells, and cells within circuits, function together to perform complex activities and optimize bodily functions. While individual clock cells are found in virtually all bodily tissues, the unique connectome of the SCN, its specialized afferent inputs from the retinohypothalamic tract, and its neural and humoral outputs enable its “babel” of neuronal types to synchronize their activity and signal time to the rest of the body.
At the molecular-cellular level, circadian rhythms are regulated by a 24-hour transcriptional–translational feedback loop. At the SCN tissue level, individual SCN neurons coordinate their gene expression and electrical activity, working together in circuits that sustain coherent rhythms. The SCN has many distinct cell types based on their neurotransmitters, neuropeptides, and afferent and efferent connections. There has been much progress in unraveling the dynamic network organization that underlies the SCN network’s communications. Though the precise anatomical connections underlying interneuronal communication in the SCN are not completely understood, key signaling mechanisms that sustain the SCN’s intrinsic rhythmicity have been tackled using intersectional genomic tools. Transgenic animals that permit the visualization of clock gene–protein expression have enabled analysis of SCN network activity over time. Availability of animals bearing mutations in clock genes or proteins enable the determination of changes within neurons, among neurons in networks, and their impact on behavior. The use of continuous readouts of circadian activity that track behavior, or clock gene expression, or electrical activity changes over time, within an SCN or a single neuron, leads the way to unraveling mechanisms sustaining the circadian timing system. Because the results of circadian studies generate huge amounts of data, the entry of mathematical modelers and statisticians into the field has begun to yield useful and testable predictions on how these multiplexed systems work to adapt to our 24-hour world.
Jose M. Alonso and Harvey A. Swadlow
The thalamocortical pathway is the main route of sensory information to the cerebral cortex. Vision, touch, hearing, taste, and balance all depend on the integrity of this pathway that connects the thalamic structures receiving sensory input with the cortical areas specialized in each sensory modality. Only the ancient sense of smell is independent of the thalamus, gaining access to cortex through more anterior routes. While the thalamocortical pathway targets different layers of the cerebral cortex, its main stream projects to the middle layers and has axon terminals that are dense, spatially restricted, and highly specific in their connections. The remarkable specificity of these thalamocortical connections allows for a precise reconstruction of the sensory dimensions that need to be most finely sampled, such as spatial acuity in vision and sound frequency in hearing. The thalamic axon terminals also segregate topographically according to their stimulus preferences, providing a simple principle to build cortical sensory maps: neighboring values in sensory space are represented by neighboring points within the cortex.
Thalamocortical processing is not static. It is continuously modulated by the brain stem and corticothalamic feedback based on the level of attention and alertness, and during sleep or general anesthesia. When alert, visual thalamic responses become stronger, more reliable, more sustained, more effective at sampling fast changes in the scene, and more linearly related to the stimulus. The high firing rates of the alert state make thalamocortical synapses chronically depressed and excitatory synaptic potentials less dependent on temporal history, improving even further the linear relation between stimulus and response. In turn, when alertness wanes, the thalamus reduces its firing rate, and starts generating spike bursts that drive large postsynaptic responses and keep the cortex responsive to sudden stimulus changes.
Kerrianne Ryan and Ian A. Meinertzhagen
Urochordates are chordate siblings that comprise the following marine invertebrates: the sessile Ascidiaceae, or sea squirts; planktonic Larvacea; and the pelagic salps, doliolids, and pyrosomes (collectively the Thaliacea), each more beautiful than the next. Tadpole larvae of ascidians and adult larvaceans both have a body plan that is chordate, with a notochord and dorsal, tubular nervous system that forms from a neural plate. Thalaciacea have a ganglion developed from a tubular structure, which has been compared to the vertebrate mes-metencephalic region, and while salps have well developed eyes, other anterior brain components are absent, and the connections within their central nervous system, as well as the neurobiology of other Thaliacea are all little reported. The ascidian tadpole larva is extensively reported, especially in the model species Ciona intestinalis, as is the caudal nerve cord in the larvacean Oikopleura dioica.
Chordate features that share proposed homology with vertebrate features include ciliary photoreceptors that hyperpolarize to light, descending decussating motor pathways that resemble Mauthner cell pathways, coronet cells in the ascidian larva and saccus vasculosus of fishes, the neural canal’s Reissner’s fiber; secondary mechanoreceptors that resemble hair cells; and ascidian bipolar cells that are like dorsal root ganglion cells.
Itzhak Fischer and Shaoping Hou
Spinal cord injury is characterized by a complex set of events, which include the disruption of connectivity between the brain and the periphery with little or no spontaneous regeneration, resulting in motor, sensory and autonomic deficits. Transplantation of neural stem cells has the potential to provide the cellular components for repair of spinal cord injury (SCI), including oligodendrocytes, astrocytes, and neurons. The ability to generate graft-derived neurons can be used to restore connectivity by formation of functional relays. The critical requirements for building a relay are to achieve long-term survival of graft-derived neurons and promote axon growth into and out of the transplant. Recent studies have demonstrated that mixed populations of glial and neuronal progenitors provide a permissive microenvironment for survival and differentiation of early-stage neurons, but inclusion of growth factors with the transplant or cues for directional axon growth outside the transplant may also be needed. Other important considerations include the timing of the transplantation and the selection of a population of neurons that maximizes the effective transmission of signals. In some experiments, the essential neuronal relay formation has been developed in both sensory and motor systems related to locomotion, respiration, and autonomic functions. Despite impressive advances, the poor regenerative capacity of adult CNS combined with the inhibitory environment of the injury remain a challenge for achieving functional connectivity via supraspinal tracts, but it is possible that recruitment of local propriospinal neurons may facilitate the formation of relays. Furthermore, it is clear that the new connections will not be identical to the original innervation, and therefore there needs to be a mechanism for translating the resulting connectivity into useful function. A promising strategy is to mimic the process of neural development by exploiting the remarkable plasticity associated with activity and exercise to prune and strengthen synaptic connections. In the meantime, the sources of neural cells for transplantation are rapidly expanding beyond the use of fetal CNS tissue and now include pluripotent ES and iPS cells as well as cells obtained by direct reprogramming. These new options can provide considerable advantages with respect to preparation of cell stocks and the use of autologous grafting, but they present challenges of complex differentiation protocols and risks of tumor formation. It is important to note that although neural stem cell transplantation into the injured spinal cord is primarily designed to provide preclinical data for the potential treatment of patients with SCI, it can also be used to develop analogous protocols for repair of neuronal circuits in other regions of the CNS damaged by injury or neurodegeneration. The advantages of the spinal cord system include well-defined structures and a large array of quantitative functional tests. Therefore, studying the formation of a functional relay will address the fundamental aspects of neuronal cell replacement without the additional complexities associated with brain circuits.
Sabine Kastner and Timothy J. Buschman
Natural scenes are cluttered and contain many objects that cannot all be processed simultaneously. Due to this limited processing capacity, neural mechanisms are needed to selectively enhance the information that is most relevant to one’s current behavior and to filter unwanted information. We refer to these mechanisms as “selective attention.” Attention has been studied extensively at the behavioral level in a variety of paradigms, most notably, Treisman’s visual search and Posner’s paradigm. These paradigms have also provided the basis for studies directed at understanding the neural mechanisms underlying attentional selection, both in the form of neuroimaging studies in humans and intracranial electrophysiology in non-human primates. The selection of behaviorally relevant information is mediated by a large-scale network that includes regions in all major lobes as well as subcortical structures. Attending to a visual stimulus modulates processing across the visual processing hierarchy with stronger effects in higher-order areas. Current research is aimed at characterizing the functions of the different network nodes as well as the dynamics of their functional connectivity.
Anitha Pasupathy, Yasmine El-Shamayleh, and Dina V. Popovkina
Humans and other primates rely on vision. Our visual system endows us with the ability to perceive, recognize, and manipulate objects, to avoid obstacles and dangers, to choose foods appropriate for consumption, to read text, and to interpret facial expressions in social interactions. To support these visual functions, the primate brain captures a high-resolution image of the world in the retina and, through a series of intricate operations in the cerebral cortex, transforms this representation into a percept that reflects the physical characteristics of objects and surfaces in the environment. To construct a reliable and informative percept, the visual system discounts the influence of extraneous factors such as illumination, occlusions, and viewing conditions. This perceptual “invariance” can be thought of as the brain’s solution to an inverse inference problem in which the physical factors that gave rise to the retinal image are estimated. While the processes of perception and recognition seem fast and effortless, it is a challenging computational problem that involves a substantial proportion of the primate brain.
Pedro Martínez, Volker Hartenstein, and Simon G. Sprecher
The emergence and diversification of bilateral animals are among the most important transitions in the history of life on our planet. A proper understanding of the evolutionary process will derive from answering such key questions as, how did complex body plans arise in evolutionary time, and how are complex body plans “encoded” in the genome? the first step is focusing on the earliest stages in bilaterian evolution, probing the most elusive organization of the genomes and microscopic anatomy in basally branching taxa, which are currently assembled in a clade named Xenacoelomorpha. This enigmatic phylum is composed of three major taxa: acoel flatworms, nemertodermatids, and xenoturbellids. Interestingly, the constituent species of this clade have an enormously varied set of morphologies; not just the obvious external features but also their tissues present a high degree of constructional variation. This interesting diversity of morphologies (a clear example being the nervous system, with animals showing different degrees of compaction) provides a unique system in which to address outstanding questions regarding the parallel evolution of genomes and the many morphological characters encoded by them. A systematic exploration of the anatomy of members of these three taxa, employing immunohistochemistry, in situ hybridization, and high-throughput transmission electron microscopy, will provide the reference framework necessary to understand the changing roles of genes and gene networks during the evolution of xenacoelomorph morphologies and, in particular, of their nervous systems.