Social and ecological regulation of a decision-making circuit

H Neumeister, K W Whitaker, H A Hofmann, T Preuss
Journal of Neurophysiology 2010, 104 (6): 3180-8
Ecological context, sensory inputs, and the internal physiological state are all factors that need to be integrated for an animal to make appropriate behavioral decisions. However, these factors have rarely been studied in the same system. In the African cichlid fish Astatotilapia burtoni, males alternate between two phenotypes based on position in a social hierarchy. When dominant (DOM), fish display bright body coloration and a wealth of aggressive and reproductive behavioral patterns that make them conspicuous to predators. Subordinate (SUB) males, on the other hand, decrease predation risk by adopting cryptic coloration and schooling behavior. We therefore hypothesized that DOMs would show enhanced startle-escape responsiveness to compensate for their increased predation risk. Indeed, behavioral responses to sound clicks of various intensities showed a significantly higher mean startle rate in DOMs compared with SUBs. Electrophysiological recordings from the Mauthner cells (M-cells), the neurons triggering startle, were performed in anesthetized animals and showed larger synaptic responses to sound clicks in DOMs, consistent with the behavioral results. In addition, the inhibitory drive mediated by interneurons (passive hyperpolarizing potential [PHP] cells) presynaptic to the M-cell was significantly reduced in DOMs. Taken together, the results suggest that the likelihood for an escape to occur for a given auditory stimulus is higher in DOMs because of a more excitable M-cell. More broadly, this study provides an integrative explanation of an ecological and social trade-off at the level of an identifiable decision-making neural circuit.


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