A weak or moderate-intensity tactile stimulus delivered to the siphon skin of Aplysia californica elicits a defensive reflex withdrawal of the gill and siphon into the mantle cavity. The reflex undergoes both short- and long-term habituation and sensitization and has, therefore, been used as a model system to examine various forms of learning. In this paper we describe studies of the response properties of the sensory and motor neurons of the reflex during repeated stimulation at rates that produce habituation. The sensory neurons are slowly adapting mechanoreceptor cells whose frequency of discharge is a monotonic function of controlled-force punctate stimuli delivered to the skin. The majority of the stimulus-response relations could best be described by exponential functions. We examined the stability of the sensory neuron responses in two ways; with punctate stimuli of varying intensity and with water jets of varying intensity. With repeated punctate stimulation at rates which produce habituation in the intact animal the mechanoreceptor discharge showed no decrement. This stability was observed over a 10-fold range of intensities. Weak or moderate intensity water-jet stimuli to the skin also gave stable response but stronger stimuli caused the mechanoreceptor response to fatigue. We examined the stability of the motor responses by using intracellular depolarizing current pulses to produce repetitive bursts of action potentials in gill motor neurons while monitoring the gill contractions with a strain gauge, photocell, or videotape recorder. The photocell and strain gauge were alternatively used in the same experiment. Gill contractions monitored with the photocell were stable, whereas those monitored by the strain gauge showed decrement. An independent measure of gill contraction, videotape recording, confirmed the results obtained with the photocell and showed that the gill contractions following repeated intracellular depolarization of the motor neurons were stable.
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