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Developmental dissociation of excitability and secretory ability in Aplysia bag cell neurons


1. Despite the considerable progress made in understanding the role of electrical activity in triggering secretion, the developmental relationships between excitability and secretion are not well understood. The well-characterized bag cell neurons of Aplysia provide an advantageous system in which to investigate developmental interactions of these two key properties of neurons. 2. A prolonged afterdischarge triggers egg laying hormone (ELH) secretion in mature bag cell neurons. To investigate secretion in the developmental framework of excitability, we first examined whether immature neurons, which are incapable of the mature form of excitability (afterdischarge), contain ELH and whether this hormone is packaged in vesicles. We used immunoelectron microscopy to compare vesicular localization of ELH and to compare the size and density of ELH-containing vesicles in neurons from adult and juvenile Aplysia. This comparison revealed that immature neurons contain ELH in vesicles in the size range of secretory vesicles. However, they lack a class of large vesicles (> 250 nm in diameter) that is characteristic of mature neurons. 3. To investigate whether the ELH contained in immature bag cell neurons could be secreted in response to electrical activity, we used the potassium channel blocker tetraethylammonium (TEA) combined with nerve stimulation to depolarize neurons from both juvenile animals (ovotestes do not contain eggs) and from adult Aplysia (ovotestes contain eggs). Using radioimmunoassay, we have found that the duration and amount of ELH secreted from bag cell neurons from juvenile Aplysia in response to TEA does not depend on whether or not the cells can be induced to afterdischarge, and the amount and duration of ELH secreted from bag cell neurons of juvenile Aplysia (whether or not they afterdischarged) differed from those secreted by adult neurons. However, by normalizing for body size, we found that the final estimated hemolymph concentration of ELH would be similar in juvenile and adult animals. 4. We investigated the potential functional significance of secretion of bag cell hormones in juvenile Aplysia by attempting to bypass the bag cell neurons and directly activate downstream elements with extract from adult bag cell neurons (BCE), known to contain ELH and other peptides. We found that juvenile Aplysia exhibit at least one component of egg-laying behavior, cessation of locomotion, in response to BCE during a developmental period (as measured by weight) in which they normally would possess neurons incapable of afterdischarge. Thus developmental regulation of excitability in the bag cell neurons may prevent inappropriate hormone release and subsequent premature expression of reproductive behaviors.

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