Spinal Basis of Direction Control during Locomotion in Larval Zebrafish

Michael Jay, Malcolm A. MacIver, David L. McLean*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Navigation requires steering and propulsion, but how spinal circuits contribute to direction control during ongoing locomotion is not well understood. Here, we use drifting vertical gratings to evoke directed “fictive” swimming in intact but immobilized larval zebrafish while performing electrophysiological recordings from spinal neurons. We find that directed swimming involves unilateral changes in the duration of motor output and increased recruitment of motor neurons, without impacting the timing of spiking across or along the body. Voltage-clamp recordings from motor neurons reveal increases in phasic excitation and inhibition on the side of the turn. Current-clamp recordings from premotor interneurons that provide phasic excitation or inhibition reveal two types of recruitment patterns. A direction-agnostic pattern with balanced recruitment on the turning and nonturning sides is primarily observed in excitatory V2a neurons with ipsilateral descending axons, while a direction-sensitive pattern with preferential recruitment on the turning side is dominated by V2a neurons with ipsilateral bifurcating axons. Inhibitory V1 neurons are also divided into direction-sensitive and direction-agnostic subsets, although there is no detectable morphologic distinction. Our findings support the modular control of steering and propulsion by spinal premotor circuits, where recruitment of distinct subsets of excitatory and inhibitory interneurons provide adjustments in direction while on the move.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4062-4074
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number22
StatePublished - May 31 2023


  • interneurons
  • motor neurons
  • optomotor
  • spinal cord
  • swimming
  • turning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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