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A circuit analysis of habituation in Caenorhabditis elegans Wicks, Stephen Robert


The tap withdrawal response of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans supports several forms of behavioural plasticity, including habituation (Rankin, Beck, & Chiba, 1990). The relative simplicity of this organism, both in terms of its nervous system and its genetic tractability, suggest that it would be a fruitful model system within which to investigate the neural and molecular substrates of learning. This report examines the production of the tap withdrawal response and the plasticity exhibited by that response at the cellular/circuit level. The neural circuit that mediates the tap response was identified through a program of single-cell laser microsurgery. Further behavioural analyses determined some of the functional properties of the tap withdrawal circuit neurons, both in the production of the tap withdrawal response and in the generation of the plasticity that that response expresses. First, this work demonstrated that the response was not unitary, but rather was composed of two competing reflexive behaviours: forward locomotion in response to posterior mechanosensory input and backward locomotion in response to anterior mechanosensory input. An animal's response to given stimulus was determined by the relative degree to which each of these reflexes were recruited. Second, it was demonstrated that each constituent reflex habituated in the absence of the other, and that habituation of the intact response was a summation of these two processes. Third, a dynamic network simulation of the circuit was used to predict the sign or polarity of the synapses that constitute the circuit. Fourth, it was demonstrated that at least two independent interstimulus interval-dependent processes were recruited during habituation: One that affects habituation kinetics and one that affects recovery from habituation. Finally, an analysis of the effects of tap withdrawal response habituation on other non-mechanosensory withdrawal behaviours was used, in conjunction with ablation studies, to identify potential loci of change within the circuit that might underlie habituation. The implications both of the functional properties of tap withdrawal circuit elements during habituation and the restriction of potential sites of change are discussed.

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