A common feature of arousing stimuli used as reinforcement in animal models of learning is that they promote memory formation through widespread effects in the CNS. In the marine mollusk Aplysia, sensitization is typically induced by tail-shock, an aversive reinforcer that triggers a state of defensive arousal characterized by escape locomotion and increased heart rate. Serotonin (5-HT) contributes importantly to sensitization of defensive reflexes as well as to the regulation of locomotion and heart rate. Although specific serotonergic neurons increase their firing after tail-shock, it remains unclear whether this effect is restricted to these neurons or whether tail-shock recruits a more global serotonergic system. In this study, we recorded from serotonergic neurons throughout the CNS, which were prelabeled with 5,7-dihydroxytryptamine, during an in vitro analog of sensitization training, tail-nerve shock. We found that most of the serotonergic neurons that we recorded from (80%) increased their firing rate for several minutes after nerve shock. Most serotonergic neurons in the pedal and abdominal ganglion were also excited by 5-HT and by intracellular activation of the two serotonergic neurons CB1/CC3. This interconnectivity between serotonergic neurons might contribute to spread excitation within a large proportion of the serotonergic system during sensitization training. It is also possible that serotonergic neurons could be activated by 5-HT present in the hemolymph via a neuro-humoral positive feedback mechanism. Overall, these data indicate that sensitization training activates a large proportion of Aplysia serotonergic neurons and that this form of learning occurs in a context of increased serotonergic tone.
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