skip to main content

Title: Temporal processing and context dependency in Caenorhabditis elegans response to mechanosensation
A worm called Caenorhabditis elegans has a nervous system made up of only 302 neurons, far fewer than the billions of cells that comprise our own brains. And yet these few hundred neurons are enough for these worms to detect and respond to their surroundings. C. elegans is thus a popular choice for studying how nervous systems process sensory information and use it to control behavior. Yet, most experiments to date have used only simple stimuli, such as taps or pokes, and studied a handful of behaviors, such as whether or not a worm stops moving or backs up. This limits the conclusions it has been possible to draw. Liu et al. therefore set out to determine how the worm’s nervous system responds to more complex stimuli. These included physical stimuli, such as taps on the side of the dish containing the worms, as well as simulated stimuli. To generate the latter, Liu et al. used a technique called optogenetics to directly activate the neurons in the worm’s body that would normally detect information from the senses, by simply shining a light on the worms. Doing so gives the worm the sensation of a physical stimulus, even though none was more » present. Liu et al. then used mathematics to examine the relationships between the stimuli and the worms’ responses. The results confirmed that worms usually respond to simple stimuli, such as taps on the side of their dish, by backing up. But they also revealed more advanced forms of stimulus processing. The worms responded differently to stimuli that increased over time versus decreased, for example. A worm's response to a stimulus also varied depending on what the worm was doing at the time. Worms that were in the middle of turns, for instance, ignored stimuli to which they would normally respond. This suggests that an animal’s current behavior influences how its nervous system interprets sensory information. The discovery of relatively sophisticated responses to sensory stimuli in C. elegans indicates that even simple nervous systems are capable of flexible sensory processing. This lays a foundation for understanding how neural circuits interpret sensory signals. Building on this work will ultimately help us understand how more complicated nervous systems interpret and respond to the world. « less
; ; ;
Award ID(s):
Publication Date:
Journal Name:
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Cells of all kinds often wage chemical warfare against each other. Hydrogen peroxide is often the weapon of choice on the microscopic battlefield, where it is used to incapacitate opponents or to defend against attackers. For example, some plants produce hydrogen peroxide in response to infection to fight off disease-causing microbes. Individual cells have also evolved defenses to prevent or repair ‘injuries’ caused by hydrogen peroxide. These are similar across many different species. They include enzymes called catalases, which break down hydrogen peroxide, and others to repair damage. However, scientists still do not fully understand how animals and other multicellular organisms might coordinate these defenses across their cells. Caenorhabditis elegans is a microscopic species of worm that lives in rotting fruits. It often encounters the threat of cellular warfare: many types of bacteria in its environment generate hydrogen peroxide, and some can make enough to kill the worms outright. Like other organisms, C. elegans also produces catalases to defend itself against hydrogen peroxide attacks. However, it must activate its defenses at the right time; if it did so when they were not needed, this would result in a detrimental energy ‘cost’ to the worm. Although C. elegans is a smallmore »organism containing only a defined number of cells, exactly why and how it switches its chemical defenses on or off remains unknown. Schiffer et al. therefore set out to determine how C. elegans controls these defenses, focusing on the role of the brain in detecting and processing information from its environment. Experiments looking at the brains of genetically manipulated worms revealed a circuit of sensory nerve cells whose job is to tell the rest of the worm’s tissues that they no longer need to produce defense enzymes. Crucially, the circuit became active when the worms sensed E. coli bacteria nearby. Bacteria in the same family as E. coli are normally found in in the same habitat as C. elegans and these bacteria are also known to make enzymes of their own to eliminate hydrogen peroxide around them. These results indicate that C. elegans can effectively decide, based on the activity of its circuit, when to use its own defenses and when to ‘freeload’ off those of neighboring bacteria. This work is an important step towards understanding how sensory circuits in the brain can control hydrogen peroxide defenses in multicellular organisms. In the future, it could help researchers work out how more complex animals, like humans, coordinate their cellular defenses, and therefore potentially yield new strategies for improving health and longevity.« less
  2. Animals generate many different motor programs (such as moving, feeding and grooming) that they can alter in response to internal needs and environmental cues. These motor programs are controlled by dedicated brain circuits that act on specific muscle groups. However, little is known about how organisms coordinate these different motor programs to ensure that their resulting behavior is coherent and appropriate to the situation. This is difficult to investigate in large organisms with complex nervous systems, but with 302 brain cells that control 143 muscle cells, the small worm Caenorhabditis elegans provides a good system to examine this question. Here, Cermak, Yu, Clark et al. devised imaging methods to record each type of motor program in C. elegans worms over long time periods, while also dissecting the underlying neural mechanisms that coordinate these motor programs. This constitutes one of the first efforts to capture and quantify all the behavioral outputs of an entire organism at once. The experiments also showed that dopamine – a messenger molecule in the brain – links the neural circuits that control two motor programs: movement and egg-laying. A specific type of high-speed movement activates brain cells that release dopamine, which then transmits this information tomore »the egg-laying circuit. This means that worms lay most of their eggs whilst traveling at high speed through a food source, so that their progeny can be distributed across a nutritive environment. This work opens up the possibility to study how behaviors are coordinated at the level of the whole organism – a departure from the traditional way of focusing on how specific neural circuits generate specific behaviors. Ultimately, it will also be interesting to look at the role of dopamine in behavior coordination in a wide range of animals.« less
  3. Small roundworms such as Caenorhabditis elegans release chemical signals called ascarosides in order to communicate with other worms of the same species. Using the ascarosides, the worm can tell its friends, for example, how crowded the neighborhood is and whether there is enough food. The ascarosides thus help the worms in the population decide whether the neighborhood is good – meaning they should hang around, eat, and make babies – or whether the neighborhood is bad. If so, the worms should develop into a larval stage specialized for dispersal that will allow them to find a better neighborhood. Roundworms make the ascarosides by attaching a long chemical ‘side chain’ to an ascarylose sugar. Further chemical modifications allow the worms to produce different signals. In general, to signal a good neighborhood, worms attach a structure called an indole group to the ascarosides. To signal a bad neighborhood, worms make the side chain very short. But how does a worm control which ascarosides it makes? Zhou, Wang et al. now show that C. elegans can change the meaning of its chemical message by modifying the ascarosides that it has already produced instead of making new ones from scratch. Specifically, as their neighborhoodmore »runs out of food, C. elegans can use an enzyme called ACS-7 to initiate the shortening of the side chains of indole-ascarosides. The worm can thus change a favorable ascaroside signal that causes the worms to group together into an unfavorable ascaroside signal that causes the worms to enter their dispersal stage. Although Zhou, Wang et al. have focused on chemical communication in C. elegans, the findings could easily apply to the many other species of roundworm that produce ascarosides. Knowing how worms communicate will help us to understand how worms respond to their environment. This knowledge could potentially be used to interfere with the lifecycles and survival of parasitic worm species that harm health and crops.« less
  4. This study provides a normative theory for how Bayesian causal inference can be implemented in neural circuits. In both cognitive processes such as causal reasoning and perceptual inference such as cue integration, the nervous systems need to choose different models representing the underlying causal structures when making inferences on external stimuli. In multisensory processing, for example, the nervous system has to choose whether to integrate or segregate inputs from different sensory modalities to infer the sensory stimuli, based on whether the inputs are from the same or different sources. Making this choice is a model selection problem requiring the computation of Bayes factor, the ratio of likelihoods between the integration and the segregation models. In this paper, we consider the causal inference in multisensory processing and propose a novel generative model based on neural population code that takes into account both stimulus feature and stimulus reliability in the inference. In the case of circular variables such as heading direction, our normative theory yields an analytical solution for computing the Bayes factor, with a clear geometric interpretation, which can be implemented by simple additive mechanisms with neural population code. Numerical simulation shows that the tunings of the neurons computing Bayes factormore »are consistent with the "opposite neurons" discovered in dorsal medial superior temporal (MSTd) and the ventral intraparietal (VIP) areas for visual-vestibular processing. This study illuminates a potential neural mechanism for causal inference in the brain.« less
  5. Most animals develop from juveniles, which cannot reproduce, to sexually mature adults. The most obvious signs of this transition are changes in body shape and size. However, changes also take place in the brain that enable the animals to adapt their behavior to the demands of adulthood. For example, fully fed adult male roundworms will leave a food source to search for mates, whereas juvenile males will continue feeding. The transition to sexual maturity needs to be carefully timed. Too early, and the animal risks compromising key stages of development. Too late, and the animal may be less competitive in the quest for reproductive success. Cues in the environment, such as the presence of food and mates, interact with timing mechanisms in the brain to trigger sexual maturity. But how these mechanisms work – in particular where and how an animal keeps track of its developmental stage – is not well understood. In the roundworm species Caenorhabditis elegans, waves of gene activity, known collectively as the heterochronic pathway, determine patterns of cell growth as animals mature. Through further studies of these worms, Lawson et al. now show that these waves also control the time at which neural circuits mature. Inmore »addition, the waves of activity occur inside the nervous system itself, rather than in a tissue that sends signals to the nervous system. Moreover, they occur independently inside many different neurons. Each neuron thus has its own molecular clock for keeping track of development. Several of the genes critical for developmental timekeeping in worms are also found in mammals, including two genes that help to control when puberty starts in humans. If one of these genes – called MKRN3 – does not work correctly, it can lead to a condition that causes individuals to go through puberty several years earlier than normal. Studying the mechanisms identified in roundworms may help us to better understand this disorder. More generally, future work that builds on the results presented by Lawson et al. will help to reveal how environmental cues and gene activity interact to control when we become adults.« less