Background Dopamine (DA) has long been known to have modulatory effects on vertebrate motor circuits. However, the types of information encoded by supraspinal DAergic neurons and their relationship to motor behavior remain unknown.
Results By conducting electrophysiological recordings from awake, paralyzed zebrafish larvae that can produce behaviorally relevant activity patterns, we show that supraspinal DAergic neurons generate two forms of output: tonic spiking and phasic bursting. Using paired supraspinal DA neuron and motoneuron recordings, we further show that these firing modes are associated with specific behavioral states. Tonic spiking is prevalent during periods of inactivity while bursting strongly correlates with locomotor output. Targeted laser ablation of supraspinal DA neurons reduces motor episode frequency without affecting basic parameters of motor output, strongly suggesting that these cells regulate spinal network excitability.
Conclusions Our findings reveal how vertebrate motor circuit flexibility is temporally controlled by supraspinal DAergic pathways and provide important insights into the functional significance of this evolutionarily conserved cell population.