The spinal interneurons and properties of glutamatergic synapses in a primitive vertebrate cutaneous flexion reflex

Wenchang Li, S.R. Soffe, A Roberts

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

47 Citations (Scopus)


Unlike the monosynaptic "stretch" reflex, the exact neuronal pathway for a simple cutaneous reflex has not yet been defined in any vertebrate. In young frog tadpoles, we made whole-cell recordings from pairs of spinal neurons. We found direct, excitatory, glutamatergic synapses from touch-sensitive skin-sensory neurons to sensory pathway interneurons, and then from these sensory interneurons to motoneurons and premotor interneurons on the other side of the body. We conclude that the minimal pathway for this primitive reflex, in which stroking the skin on one side leads to flexion on the other side, is disynaptic. This detailed circuit information has allowed us to ask whether the properties of glutamatergic synapses during the first day of CNS development are tuned to their function in the tadpole's responses. Stroking the skin excites a few sensory neurons. These activate primarily AMPA receptors producing short, strong excitation that activates many sensory pathway interneurons but only allows temporal summation of closely synchronous inputs. In contrast, the excitation produced in contralateral neurons by the sensory pathway interneurons is weak and primarily mediated by NMDA receptors. As a result, considerable summation is required for this excitation to lead to postsynaptic neuron firing and a contralateral flexion. We conclude that from their early functioning, synapses from sensory neurons are strong and those from sensory pathway interneurons are weak. The distribution of glutamate receptors at synapses in this developing circuit is tuned so that synapses have properties suited to their roles in the whole animal's reflex responses.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)9068-77
Number of pages10
JournalThe Journal of Neuroscience
Issue number27
Publication statusPublished - 8 Oct 2003


  • locomotion
  • reflex
  • spinal cord
  • NMDA
  • glutamate receptors
  • Xenopus
  • CORD


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