The nervous system of the marine mollusk Aplysia californica is relatively simple, consisting of approximately 20,000 neurons. The neurons are large (up to 1 mm in diameter) and identifiable, with distinct sizes, shapes, positions and pigmentations, and the cell bodies are externally exposed in five paired ganglia distributed throughout the body of the animal. These properties have allowed investigators to delineate the circuitry underlying specific behaviors in the animal1. The monosynaptic connection between sensory and motor neurons is a central component of the gill-withdrawal reflex in the animal, a simple defensive reflex in which the animal withdraws its gill in response to tactile stimulation of the siphon. This reflex undergoes forms of non-associative and associative learning, including sensitization, habituation and classical conditioning. Of particular benefit to the study of synaptic plasticity, the sensory-motor synapse can be reconstituted in culture, where well-characterized stimuli elicit forms of plasticity that have direct correlates in the behavior of the animal2,3. Specifically, application of serotonin produces a synaptic strengthening that, depending on the application protocol, lasts for minutes (short-term facilitation), hours (intermediate-term facilitation) or days (long-term facilitation). In contrast, application of the peptide transmitter FMRFamide produces a synaptic weakening or depression that, depending on the application protocol, can last from minutes to days (long-term depression). The large size of the neurons allows for repeated sharp electrode recording of synaptic strength over periods of days together with microinjection of expression vectors, siRNAs and other compounds to target specific signaling cascades and molecules and thereby identify the molecular and cell biological steps that underlie the changes in synaptic efficacy.
An additional advantage of the Aplysia culture system comes from the fact that the neurons demonstrate synapse-specificity in culture4,5. Thus, sensory neurons do not form synapses with themselves (autapses) or with other sensory neurons, nor do they form synapses with non-target identified motor neurons in culture. The varicosities, sites of synaptic contact between sensory and motor neurons, are large enough (2-7 microns in diameter) to allow synapse formation (as well as changes in synaptic morphology) with target motor neurons to be studied at the light microscopic level.
In this video, we demonstrate each step of preparing sensory-motor neuron cultures, including anesthetizing adult and juvenile Aplysia, dissecting their ganglia, protease digestion of the ganglia, removal of the connective tissue by microdissection, identification of both sensory and motor neurons and removal of each cell type by microdissection, plating of the motor neuron, addition of the sensory neuron and manipulation of the sensory neurite to form contact with the cultured motor neuron.