Dopamine activates the motor pattern for crawling in the medicinal leech

Joshua G. Puhl, Karen A. Mesce

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


Locomotion in segmented animals is thought to be based on the coupling of "unit burst generators," but the biological nature of the unit burst generator has been revealed in only a few animal systems. We determined that dopamine (DA), a universal modulator of motor activity, is sufficient to activate fictive crawling in the medicinal leech, and can exert its actions within the smallest division of the animal's CNS, the segmental ganglion. In the entire isolated nerve cord or in the single ganglion, DA induced slow antiphasic bursting (∼15 s period) of motoneurons known to participate in the two-step elongation- contraction cycle underlying crawling behavior. During each cycle, the dorsal (DE-3) and ventral (VE-4) longitudinal excitor motoneurons fired ∼180° out of phase from the ventrolateral circular excitor motoneuron (CV), which marks the elongation phase. In many isolated whole nerve cords, DE-3 bursting progressed in an anterior to posterior direction with intersegmental phase delays appropriate for crawling. In the single ganglion, the dorsal (DI-1) and ventral (VI-2) inhibitory longitudinal motoneurons fired out of phase with each DE-3 burst, further confirming that the crawl unit burst generator exists in the single ganglion. All isolated ganglia of the CNS were competent to produce DA-induced robust fictive crawling, which typically lasted uninterrupted for 5-15 min. A quantitative analysis indicated that DA-induced crawling was not significantly different from electrically evoked or spontaneous crawling. We conclude that DA is sufficient to activate the full crawl motor program and that the kernel for crawling resides within each segmental ganglion.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4192-4200
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number16
StatePublished - Apr 16 2008


  • Central pattern generator
  • Fictive behavior
  • Hirudo
  • Intersegmental coordination
  • Locomotion
  • Spinal cord

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