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Brian D. Burrell

The medicinal leech (Hirudo verbana) is an annelid (segmented worm) and one of the classic model systems in neuroscience. It has been used in research for over 50 years and was one of the first animals in which intracellular recordings of mechanosensory neurons were carried out. Remarkably, the leech has three main classes of mechanosensory neurons that exhibit many of the same properties found in vertebrates. The most sensitive of these neurons are the touch cells, which are rapidly adapting neurons that detect low-intensity mechanical stimuli. Next are the pressure cells, which are slow-adapting sensory neurons that respond to higher intensity, sustained mechanostimulation. Finally, there are nociceptive neurons, which have the highest threshold and respond to potentially damaging mechanostimuli, such as a pinch. As observed in mammals, the leech has separate mechanosensitive and polymodal nociceptors, the latter responding to mechanical, thermal, and chemical stimuli. The cell bodies for all three types of mechanosensitive neurons are found in the central nervous system where they are arranged as bilateral pairs. Each neuron extends processes to the skin where they form discrete receptive fields. In the touch and pressure cells, these receptive fields are arranged along the dorsal-ventral axis. For the mechano-only and polymodal nociceptive neurons, the peripheral receptive fields overlap with the mechano-only nociceptor, which also innervates the gut. The leech also has a type of mechanosensitive cell located in the periphery that responds to vibrations in the water and is used, in part, to detect potential prey nearby. In the central nervous system, the touch, pressure, and nociceptive cells all form synaptic connections with a variety of motor neurons, interneurons, and even each other, using glutamate as the neurotransmitter. Synaptic transmission by these cells can be modulated by a variety of activity-dependent processes as well as the influence of neuromodulatory transmitters, such as serotonin. The output of these sensory neurons can also be modulated by conduction block, a process in which action potentials fail to propagate to all the synaptic release sites, decreasing synaptic output. Activity in these sensory neurons leads to the initiation of a number of different motor behaviors involved in locomotion, such as swimming and crawling, as well as behaviors designed to recoil from aversive/noxious stimuli, such as local bending and shortening. In the case of local bending, the leech is able to bend in the appropriate direction away from the offending stimuli. It does so through a combination of which mechanosensory cell receptive fields have been activated and the relative activation of multiple sensory cells decoded by a layer of downstream interneurons.


James S.H. Wong and Catharine H. Rankin

The nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans), is an organism useful for the study of learning and memory at the molecular, cellular, neural circuitry, and behavioral levels. Its genetic tractability, transparency, connectome, and accessibility for in vivo cellular and molecular analyses are a few of the characteristics that make the organism such a powerful system for investigating mechanisms of learning and memory. It is able to learn and remember across many sensory modalities, including mechanosensation, chemosensation, thermosensation, oxygen sensing, and carbon dioxide sensing. C. elegans habituates to mechanosensory stimuli, and shows short-, intermediate-, and long-term memory, and context conditioning for mechanosensory habituation. The organism also displays chemotaxis to various chemicals, such as diacetyl and sodium chloride. This behavior is associated with several forms of learning, including state-dependent learning, classical conditioning, and aversive learning. C. elegans also shows thermotactic learning in which it learns to associate a particular temperature with the presence or absence of food. In addition, both oxygen preference and carbon dioxide avoidance in C. elegans can be altered by experience, indicating that they have memory for the oxygen or carbon dioxide environment they were reared in. Many of the genes found to underlie learning and memory in C. elegans are homologous to genes involved in learning and memory in mammals; two examples are crh-1, which is the C. elegans homolog of the cAMP response element-binding protein (CREB), and glr-1, which encodes an AMPA glutamate receptor subunit. Both of these genes are involved in long-term memory for tap habituation, context conditioning in tap habituation, and chemosensory classical conditioning. C. elegans offers the advantage of having a very small nervous system (302 neurons), thus it is possible to understand what these conserved genes are doing at the level of single identified neurons. As many mechanisms of learning and memory in C. elegans appear to be similar in more complex organisms including humans, research with C. elegans aids our ever-growing understanding of the fundamental mechanisms of learning and memory across the animal kingdom.