Activity in descending dopaminergic neurons represents but is not required for leg movements in the fruit fly Drosophila.
Modulatory descending neurons (DNs) that link the brain to body motor circuits, including dopaminergic DNs (DA-DNs), are thought to contribute to the flexible control of behavior. Dopamine elicits locomotor-like outputs and influences neuronal excitability in isolated body motor circuits over tens of seconds to minutes, but it remains unknown how and over what time scale DA-DN activity relates to movement in behaving animals. To address this question, we identified DA-DNs in the Drosophila brain and developed an electrophysiological preparation to record and manipulate the activity of these cells during behavior. We find that DA-DN spike rates are rapidly modulated during a subset of leg movements and scale with the total speed of ongoing leg movements, whether occurring spontaneously or in response to stimuli. However, activating DA-DNs does not elicit leg movements in intact flies, nor do acute bidirectional manipulations of DA-DN activity affect the probability or speed of leg movements over a time scale of seconds to minutes. Our findings indicate that in the context of intact descending control, changes in DA-DN activity are not sufficient to influence ongoing leg movements and open the door to studies investigating how these cells interact with other descending and local neuromodulatory inputs to influence body motor output.
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