Cell types and synaptic organization of the medullary electromotor nucleus in a constant frequency weakly electric fish, Sternarchus albifrons

Akira Tokunaga, Konrad Akert, Clara Sandri, Michael V.L. Bennett

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5 Scopus citations


The medullary electromotor nucleus (EMN) of Sternarchus albifrons was studied at the light and electron microscopic levels. The EMN consists of a dense meshwork of myelinated axons and glial elements with interposed large neurons; it is provided with an abundant supply of capillaries. Two types of essentially adendritic nerve cells were distinguished on the basis of size: giant neurons (approx. 70 μm in diameter) and large neurons (approx. 30 μm in diameter). Their population ratio is 1:4. Only giant cells are labelled following the injection of retrograde tracer into the spinal cord; they are therefore identified with the so‐called “relay cells” of other gymnotids. Tracer experiments further suggest that the descending axons of these relay cells give off collateral branches throughout the elongated spinal electromotor nucleus. In contrast, the large cells remain unlabelled and therefore lack spinal projections; they most likely correspond to “pacemaker cells”. The perikaryal surface, including axon hillock and proximal part of initial segment of both types of EMN cells, is contacted by clusters of synaptic terminals and astrocytic processes. Two main varieties of synaptic terminals occur: (1) large endings and (2) ordinary end feet with standard size (S‐type) and variable size (Sv‐type) clear, spherical vesicles. The junction between large endings and EMN cells is characterized by the combination of gap junctions and surrounding intermediate junctions whose freeze‐fracture characteristics were morphometrically analyzed. The large endings were formed by nodes of Ranvier as well as by fiber terminations, and synchronization within the EMN may be achieved by presynaptic fibers. Some of the contacts occur directly on the initial segment, which could allow activity to bypass the soma. It is concluded that the electromotor system of Sternarchus is comprised of a rapid conduction pathway where medullary pacemaker and relay cells as well as spinal electromotor neurons are coupled by synapses with gap junctions. In contrast to the spinal electromotor neurons, the medullary EMN cells receive synapses with morphological characteristics of chemical transmission, and the S‐type and Sv‐type terminals may possibly correspond to Gray's Type I and Type II synapses, respectively. These synapses may be involved in modulation of the electric organ discharge frequency.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)407-426
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Comparative Neurology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 1 1980

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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