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Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptHHS Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
J Neurosci. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2010 December 1.
Published in final edited form as:
PMCID: PMC2908950

Dopamine modulates Ih in a motor axon


We studied the axons of the pyloric dilator (PD) neurons in the stomatogastric nervous system of the lobster. The several centimeters long portions of these axons in the motor nerves depolarize in response to low concentrations of dopamine (DA) and exhibit peripheral spike initiation in the absence of centrally generated activity. This effect is inhibited by blockers of hyperpolarization-activated inward current (Ih). We show here that peripheral spike initiation was also elicited by D1-type receptor agonists and drugs that increase cAMP. This suggests that DA acts through a D1-type receptor mechanism to modulate hyperpolarization-activated cyclic nucleotide-gated channels. We used two- electrode voltage clamp of the axon to directly study the effect of DA on Ih. Surprisingly, DA decreased the maximal conductance. However, due to a shift of the activation curve to more depolarized potentials, and a change in the slope, conductance was increased at biologically relevant membrane potentials. These changes were solely due to modulation of Ih, as DA had no discernible effect when Ih was blocked. In addition, they were not induced by repeated activation and could be mimicked by application of drugs that increase cAMP concentration. DA modulation of Ih persisted in the presence of a protein kinase A inhibitor and is therefore potentially mediated by a phosphorylation-independent direct effect of cAMP on the ion channel. A computer model of the axon showed that the changes in maximal conductance and voltage-dependence were not qualitatively affected by space clamp problems.

Keywords: Axon, Neuromodulation, Dopamine receptor, D1, GPCR, Motor neuron, Action Potential, Central Pattern Generator, Crustacea


Axon trunks are increasingly recognized as neuronal compartments with functional roles beyond mere faithful conduction of action potentials (Debanne, 2004; Kress and Mennerick, 2009). Axons often contain a diverse complement of voltage-gated ion channels (Nashmi and Fehlings, 2001; Bean, 2007; Nusser, 2009), with consequences for timing and efficacy of neuronal communication: The different activation and inactivation properties of ion channels can lead to frequency-dependent changes in conduction velocity (Meeks and Mennerick, 2007; De Col et al., 2008; Ballo and Bucher, 2009), spike failures (Miller and Rinzel, 1981; Debanne et al., 1997; Debanne et al., 1999; Meeks et al., 2005), or ectopic spike initiation (Kepler and Marder, 1993; Ma and LaMotte, 2007; Jiang et al., 2008), both under normal conditions and as a result of pathological changes (Krishnan et al., 2009).

In addition, the properties of non-synaptic axonal membrane can be under the control of neuromodulators. Among these are acetylcholine (Lang et al., 2003; Zhang et al., 2004; Kawai et al., 2007), GABA (Sakatani et al., 1991; Sakatani et al., 1993; Sun and Chiu, 1999; Verdier et al., 2003), and several amines (Meyrand et al., 1992; Mar and Drapeau, 1996; Bucher et al., 2003; Goaillard et al., 2004; Lang et al., 2006; Scuri et al., 2007; Daur et al., 2009). These examples include central and peripheral, unmyelinated and myelinated axons. However, the underlying cellular mechanisms and the potential ion channel targets of axonal modulation are poorly understood, mainly due to the difficulty of obtaining electrophysiological recordings from axons.

We have recently described axonal conduction properties and modulation in an experimentally accessible preparation. In the stomatogastric nervous system (STNS) of the lobster Homarus americanus, low concentrations of DA reliably elicit peripheral spike initiation in the two PD axons (Bucher et al., 2003). These axons display complex intrinsic membrane properties that result in activity-dependent changes in resting membrane potential, spike shape, and conduction velocity (Ballo and Bucher, 2009). Both CsCl and ZD7288 block peripheral spike initiation, suggesting that DA predominantly acts by increasing Ih (Ballo and Bucher, 2009). This current, and/or the channels underlying it, are quite commonly found in axons, both in peripheral and central neurons (Nashmi and Fehlings, 2001; Nusser, 2009). It is an inwardly rectifying current activated by hyperpolarization and facilitated by cAMP in a phosphorylation-independent manner (Robinson and Siegelbaum, 2003; Biel et al., 2009; Wahl-Schott and Biel, 2009). This suggests that in the PD axons a DA-induced increase in cAMP concentration underlies depolarization and peripheral spike initiation.

We show here that the pharmacological profile of the DA effects on the PD axons is consistent with a D1-type receptor mechanism increasing cAMP concentration. We also show that DA modulates the voltage-dependent activation of Ih in a manner consistent with the observed changes in axonal membrane properties. To our knowledge, this is the first direct demonstration of a neuromodulator affecting the activation properties of a voltage-gated ion channel situated in an axon trunk.

Materials and Methods

Experimental preparation

Adult lobsters (~500 g), H. americanus, were obtained from Commercial Lobster (Boston, MA) and kept in aerated filtered seawater tanks at 10–13°C. Animals were anesthetized on ice prior to dissection. The STNS was removed from the stomach and placed into a transparent Sylgard-lined (Dow Corning) dish in saline. The saline composition was as follows (in mM): 479.12 NaCl, 12.74 KCl, 13.67 CaCl2, 10 MgSO4, 3.91 Na2SO4, and 10 HEPES, pH 7.4–7.5.

Dissections were performed as described before (Ballo and Bucher, 2009). In short, the stomatogastric ganglion (STG), which contains the somata of the PD neurons, and connected anterior ganglia were kept intact along with the peripheral motor nerves that contain the PD axons innervating the ventral dilator muscles in the intact animal. Both the STG and the unpaired proximal motor nerve leaving the STG, the dorsal ventricular nerve (dvn), were desheathed to facilitate drug diffusion and provide access for intracellular recordings. During experiments, preparations were continuously superfused with saline cooled by either custom made peltier devices or a SC20/CL-100 cooling system (Warner Instruments). All experiments were performed at 12°C.

Two types of preparations were used. In an initial set of experiments, we obtained extracellular recordings of peripheral spike initiation during drug applications as a pharmacological assay to investigate the DA signaling pathway. Drugs were superfused only to the dvn and part of the proximal lateral ventricular nerves (lvn), while activity in the STG was pharmacologically blocked and the rest of the preparation was superfused with normal saline. In these experiments, a petroleum jelly well was built around the peripheral nerves and supplied with a separate cooled superfusion system (Fig. 1A). All drug applications were done with continuous superfusion, at rates of approximately 10 ml/min.

Figure 1
Peripheral spike initiation by DA and drugs that increase cAMP levels. A: Experimental preparation. Centrally generated activity was blocked by application of 100 nM TTX in saline to the STG. Pharmacological agents were applied to a petroleum jelly well ...

In subsequent experiments, dual intracellular recordings from PD neuron axons were obtained from the dvn and voltage clamp experiments were performed after different blockers and drugs were bath-applied (Fig. 3A). Recordings were performed at a distance of 5–20 mm to the STG, > 3 length constants from the central compartments (Ballo and Bucher, 2009) to ensure that ionic conductances located in central cell compartments did not significantly contribute to the measurements.

Figure 3
Two-electrode voltage clamp measurement of Ih. A: Schematic of the STNS and electrode positions. Channel blockers were bath applied. B: Current response to a 15 s voltage step from −30 mV to −120 mV in the presence of TTX, TEA, and 4-AP. ...

Drug applications

100 nM TTX (Tetrodotoxin, Sigma) in saline was bath-applied to block spiking activity in the whole STNS, or applied to a petroleum jelly well around the STG to selectively block centrally generated bursting activity. In addition, the following channel blockers were bath-applied in different experiments: 5 mM CsCl (Acros Organics) to block Ih, 4 mM 4-AP (4-aminopyridine, Sigma) to block transient K+ currents, and 20 mM TEA (Tetraethylammonium, Fluka) to block delayed rectifier K+ currents.

DA (3-hydroxytyramine hydrochloride, Sigma) was applied at 1 µM. Drugs tested for their potential to interfere with DA signaling included the vertebrate D1-type receptor agonists chloro-APB (chloro-APB hydrobromide, 20 µM, Sigma) and fenoldopam (fenoldopam monohydrobromide, 20 µM, Sigma), the adenylyl cyclase (AC) activator forskolin (7–10 µM, Sigma), the AC inhibitors SQ22 (SQ22,536, 200 µM, Alexis Biochemicals), MDL (MDL-12,330A hydrochloride, 200 µM, Alexis Biochemicals), DDA (2’,5’-Dideoxyadenosine, 100 µM, Sigma), and 9-CPA (9-Cyclopentyladenin monomethanesulfonate, 100 µM, Sigma), the phosphodiesterase (PDE) inhibitor IBMX (3-isobutyl-1-methylxanthine, 300 µM, Sigma), the cAMP analogs 8-br-cAMP (8-bromoadenosine 3′,5′-cyclic monophosphate, 100 µM, Sigma) and dB-cAMP (N6,2′-O-dibutyryladenosine 3′,5′-cyclic monophosphate, 1mM, Sigma), and the protein kinase A (PKA) inhibitor H89 (H-89 dihydrochloride, 20 µM, Sigma).

Forskolin and IBMX were dissolved in DMSO before dilution in saline. The final DMSO concentration was 1:1000. We tested that this amount of DMSO alone did not elicit or enhance peripheral spike initiation in the PD axon (n=5).

Electrophysiological recordings

Extracellular recordings of PD spiking activity were obtained by placing a stainless steel wire electrode into a petroleum jelly well (diameter ≈ 1 mm) built around the distal part of the pyloric dilator nerve (pdn). Signals were amplified and filtered using a differential AC amplifier (model 1700, A–M Systems).

As described before (Ballo and Bucher, 2009), intracellular axon recordings required sharp glass microelectrodes. Membrane penetration was achieved by tapping the micromanipulator (Leica, Germany) lightly with the back end of dissection forceps. Electrodes were filled with 3M KCl. Electrode resistances were between 20 and 30 MΩ and recordings that showed resting membrane potentials more depolarized than −55 mV were discarded. Signals were amplified using an Axoclamp 2B amplifier (Molecular Devices). The lower dvn contains some 20 large axons (diameters around 10µm). The PD axons were identified by their characteristic waveform during bursts and the correspondence of their spike patterns with the extracellular pdn recording. After identification, a second electrode was inserted at a distance of < 1 mm. All current measurements were performed in two-electrode voltage clamp mode.

Data were acquired using a micro 1401 digitizing board and Spike2 software (versions 6 and 7; Cambridge Electronic Design), and analyzed using programs written in the Spike2 script language. Statistical analyses and graphs were generated in SigmaPlot (version 11, Systat) and Statview (version 5, SAS Institute), final figures in Canvas (version 11, ACD Systems). Statistical significance is indicated by asterisks (*p < 0.05; **p < 0.01, ***p < 0.001). Errors are reported as standard deviation (SD) to indicate variability and as standard error of means (SEM) when statistical comparisons were performed.

Current measurements

Ih was measured using the following protocol: After blocking voltage-gated Na+ channels with TTX and K+ currents with TEA and 4-AP, the membrane potential was stepped from a holding potential of −30 mV to a more hyperpolarized potential for 15 s, in increments of 10 mV from −120 mV to −40 mV in consecutive steps. Ih in STG neurons is a very slowly activating current (Peck et al., 2006). Therefore, no leak subtraction protocol was used and instead the following method was used for leak subtraction: Single exponential fits of the current traces were generated in Spike 2, excluding the capacitance artifact at the beginning of the step. The fit was extended in both directions and Ih was measured as the difference between the steady-state value several seconds after the step and the (“leak”) current value at the intersection of the fit and the start of the step. In some experiments, these voltage steps were interleaved with two-part steps to obtain the reversal potential from tail current measurements. To this end, the membrane potential was stepped to −110 mV for 15 s and then immediately to the respective potential of the preceding step (between −120 and −40 mV) for 4s. The initial leak, measured from the preceding step, was subtracted from the peak of the tail currents. The reversal potential was determined from the zero crossings of linear fits to the IV plots.

From the IV relationship of Ih and the reversal potential, conductances were calculated and fitted with a first-order Boltzman equation of the following form: g=gmax/(1+e−(Vm−Vhalf)/s), where g is the conductance, gmax the maximal conductance, Vm the membrane potential, Vhalf the voltage of half activation, and s the slope factor. The activation time constant was determined from a single exponential fit of the current response to a step from −30 to −110mV.

Multi-compartment modeling of the PD axon

To explore how conductance measurements in the PD axon are affected by space clamp errors, a realistic computational model of the axon was built that included only passive properties and Ih. The model axon had a diameter of 10 µm and a length of 2.01 cm with sealed ends; the passive parameters used were Rm= 20 KΩ cm2, Ra= 100 Ω cm and Cm= 1 µF/cm2. The resting potential of the axon in the absence of Ih was set to −65 mV. Ih was added in all compartments uniformly as a non-inactivating current with first-order activation kinetics. Because the model was only used to measure the value of the current at steady state, the time constant used was unimportant so long as the current reached its steady-state value for each voltage step. The simulations were therefore done assuming instantaneous activation kinetics. The steady-state activation curve was assumed to be a simple sigmoid 1/(1+e−(Vm−Vhalf)/s) with the parameters defined as in the experimental fits described above.

The values of parameters used for Ih were gmax = 7.7×104 S/µm2, Erev = −32 mV in control and gmax = 4.75×104 S/µm2, Erev = −25 mV in DA. Other parameters are reported in the Results. For simulations the axon was divided into 201 compartments of length 100 µm. The injection electrode was assumed to be in the center and the recording electrode was set at various distances from the injection electrode as described in the Results.


DA acts through a D1-type signaling pathway, increasing cAMP levels

We used peripheral spike initiation as an assay to pharmacologically determine the DA signaling pathway in the PD axons. We applied DA and other drugs selectively to the peripheral nerves to test which drugs mimic or block the DA effect. Figure 1B shows the effect of 1µM DA applied to the dvn/lvn. In this experiment, the two PD axons were quiescent in the absence of centrally generated activity before DA was applied. In other experiments, axons displayed spontaneous low frequency firing or irregular bursting, as described before (Bucher et al., 2003; Ballo and Bucher, 2009). DA elicited peripheral spike initiation, across experiments peaking after 159 ± 27 s (n=11), as measured from the onset of the response. Spike frequency significantly increased from 0.5 ± 0.3 Hz in control to 16.4 ± 1.9 Hz in DA (paired t-test, p < 0.001, Fig. 1C). After the peak, there was a substantial decrease of frequency over time. This was not due to degradation of DA, as frequency continued to decrease when freshly made DA saline was applied (arrow in Fig 1B). The decrease in frequency from the time of the second DA application to 300s later was significant (n=4; paired t-test, p < 0.05). In some experiments, spike frequency showed a clear single exponential decay with a time constant of several hundred seconds. However, in other experiments spike frequency was fluctuating substantially while decreasing. We therefore abstained from quantifying this effect.

The D1-type receptor agonists chloro-APB and fenoldopam both mimicked the DA effect (Fig. 1C). 20 µM chloro-APB significantly increased peripheral spiking from 0.6 ± 0.5 Hz to 4.1 ± 1.1 Hz (n=6; paired t-test, p < 0.05). The time to reach peak frequency (415 ± 46 s, n=4) was significantly slower than in DA (unpaired t-test, p < 0.001), and spike frequency, like in DA, decayed substantially within several minutes. 50 µM fenoldopam significantly increased peripheral spiking from 0.04 ± 0.02 Hz to 7.3 ± 0.5 Hz (n=4; paired t-test, p < 0.001). The mean time to reach peak frequency was 434 ± 107 s, and therefore also significantly slower than in DA (unpaired t-test, p < 0.01). Spike frequency decayed similarly as in DA and chloro-APB.

Fenoldopam affects dopaminergic regulation of ion transport in crab gills (Genovese et al., 2006) but to our knowledge no information exists in the literature about the specificity of DA receptor agonists in crustaceans. Therefore, we also tested other drugs that potentially affect cAMP signaling. Forskolin, an activator of AC, and IBMX, an inhibitor of PDE, have been successfully used before to alter cAMP levels in motor axon terminals in H. americanus (Goy and Kravitz, 1989). Applied to the PD axons, both drugs mimicked the DA effect (Fig. 1C). 10 µM forskolin significantly increased spike frequency from 0.02 ± 0.02 Hz to 4.6 ± 1.0 Hz (n=8; paired t-test, p > 0.01). 300 µM IBMX significantly increased spike frequency from 0.5 ± 0.2 to 3.1 ± 0.9 Hz (n=5; paired t-test, p < 0.05). Spike frequency peaked after a significantly longer time in both drugs compared to DA (forskolin: 1696 ± 436 s; unpaired t-test, p < 0.001; IBMX: 1677 ± 247 s; unpaired t-test, p < 0.001), and spike frequency markedly decreased after reaching its maximum in both cases.

The results described above are consistent with an increase in cAMP levels underlying peripheral spike initiation. Surprisingly, direct application of cAMP analogs showed no effect. Neither 1 mM 8-br-cAMP (n=3) nor 1 mM db-cAMP (n=2) increased spike frequency. However, spike frequency increased when we elicited spike initiation with forskolin and then added 8-br-cAMP. Fig. 1D shows an experiment in which forskolin alone elicited peripheral spike initiation. 20 minutes after the peak response (after spike frequency had decreased to roughly half of the peak value), 8-br-cAMP was applied in conjunction with forskolin, which increased spike frequency substantially. Figure 1E shows the mean spike frequency values (n=7) taken at different time points, as indicated in Figure 1D. Spike frequency increased significantly from 3.4 ± 0.4 Hz to 6.3 ± 1.2 Hz after application of 8-br-cAMP (paired t-test, p < 0.05).

In addition, we tested inhibitors of AC that have been used successfully in invertebrates before. MDL and SQ22 inhibit cAMP-dependent activation of a chloride conductance in spiny lobster olfactory receptor neurons (Doolin and Ache, 2005), DDA diminishes serotonergic modulation of cockroach motor neuron responses to acetylcholine (Butt and Pitman, 2002), and 9-CPA disrupts cAMP-dependent expression of motor patterns in the mollusk Tritonia diomedea (Clemens et al., 2007). We applied the inhibitors first alone, and then in conjunction with DA. In all cases, DA still elicited peripheral spike initiation, at similar frequencies than the ones shown in Figure 1C for DA alone (200 µM MDL, n=2, 21.2 ± 3.9 Hz; SQ22, n=5, 14.7 ± 7.1 Hz; 100 µM DAA, n=3, 13.0 ± 7.9 Hz; 9-CPA, n=2, 14.8 ± 3.4 Hz).

An effective inhibition of DA-elicited peripheral spike initiation by blockers of Ih was shown using intracellular recordings and application to the entire PD axon (Ballo and Bucher, 2009). We wanted to confirm these results and test the magnitude of the effect with the same focal axonal applications as used above. Figure 2A shows mean maximum spike frequencies measured in these experiments (n=5). When DA was applied in conjunction with 5 mM CsCl, only a small increase in spike frequency was observed. After a 20–30 min wash, DA was applied alone and showed an increase in spike frequency comparable to the one shown in Figure 1C. The increase in spike frequency in DA alone was significant from the 3 preceding treatments, while there were no significant differences between control, DA + CsCl, and wash (repeated measures ANOVA, p < 0.001, Fisher’s PLSD post hoc tests).

Figure 2
Direct and indirect cAMP pathways. A: Application of DA + CsCl elicits a significantly smaller spiking response than subsequent application of DA alone (repeated measures ANOVA, Fisher’s PLSD post hoc comparisons). B: Mean spike frequency (bin ...

Even though these results argue that the DA effect is mostly mediated by Ih and therefore potentially directly by increased cAMP levels, we wanted to test if indirect (phosphorylation-dependent) effects of increased cAMP levels may play a role. Therefore, we tested H89, which inhibits PKA activity in crayfish proprioceptor neurons and glia cells (Uzdensky et al., 2007). H89 alone had no effect on peripheral spiking (n=3) but increased firing when applied in conjunction with DA. Figure 2B shows an experiment in which DA was applied alone first, and then, after spike frequency had decayed markedly from its peak value, in conjunction with H89. Figure 2C shows that across experiments, H89 significantly increased spike frequency from 10.3 ± 0.9 Hz to 14.0 ± 1.1 Hz (n=4, paired t-test, p < 0.05). Note that re-application of DA alone does not have this effect (Fig. 1B). With the caveat that the specificity of H89 to PKA in this system is not known, the result suggests that there may be a PKA-mediated inhibitory effect on peripheral spike initiation, either counteracting direct cAMP effects on HCN channels or affecting other currents (e.g., increasing K+ conductances).

Voltage clamp recordings from the PD axon reveal the presence of Ih

The PD axons display a substantial depolarizing sag potential in response to hyperpolarizing current injection, and blockers of Ih inhibit peripheral spike initiation in response to DA application (Ballo and Bucher, 2009, and experiments described above). In addition, our results from pharmacological experiments are consistent with an increase in cAMP. Therefore, we wanted to test the effect of DA on Ih directly. To this end, we obtained two-electrode voltage clamp recordings from the axon in the dvn (Fig. 3A). The length constant of the PD axon is ~ 1.5 mm (Ballo and Bucher, 2009). We routinely obtained good voltage control, probably aided by the fact that Ih is a slow current and no fast transients had to be clamped. Figure 3B shows the current response to a voltage step from −30 to −120 mV in control and 5 mM CsCl. CsCl blocked most of a slowly activating inward current that invariably did not reach steady state within the 15 s voltage steps used.

DA shifts the reversal potential of Ih in the depolarizing direction

Ih is a mixed cation current, as the underlying channels are permeable to Na+ and K+, generally thought to be at a fixed ratio that yields the specific reversal potential in a given case (Biel et al., 2009; Wahl-Schott and Biel, 2009). Nevertheless, we found that the reversal potential changed between control saline and DA application. We calculated the reversal potential from tail current measurements (n=4). Figure 4A shows leak-subtracted tail currents in control and DA, measured from a −110 mV prestep to test potentials between −120 and −40 mV. Figure 4B shows that linear fits to IV plots of tail currents had different slopes and zero crossings between control and DA. The extrapolated reversal potential in DA was shifted in the depolarized direction, from −32.3 ± 0.6 mV to −24.6 ± 0.5 mV, and back to a more hyperpolarized value (29.9 ± 0.5 mV) after wash (Fig. 4C). These changes were significant (repeated measures ANOVA, p < 0.001, Fisher’s PLSD post hoc comparisons). Note that the reversal potential values are close to the holding potential of −30 mV, which explains the absence of substantial tail currents in the following experiments.

Figure 4
DA effect on tail currents and reversal potential. A: Example leak-subtracted tail currents in control and DA. The membrane potential was stepped to −110 mV for 15 s and then to potentials between −120 and −40 mV for 4 s. B: I–V ...

DA increases Ih at biologically relevant membrane potentials

The mean reversal potential values obtained from the 4 experiments described above were used to calculate conductance values from Ih measurements in 7 experiments. Figure 5A shows voltage clamp traces obtained in control saline and DA. These traces show no obvious change, possibly because they were not leak-subtracted, but we found significant changes in Ih activation between control and DA across experiments. Figure 5B shows activation curves of Ih in control saline, DA, and after 20 min of wash. DA reduced the maximum conductance significantly, but increased conductance at more depolarized membrane potentials. Asterisks in Figure 5B indicate statistical significance between control and DA determined by a 2-way ANOVA (p < 0.001) and Fisher’s PLSD post-hoc tests. At potentials more negative than −80 mV, conductance was reduced, but between −70 and −50 mV (gray box in Fig. 5B) conductance was increased. The calculated maximal conductance decreased significantly from 67 ± 4 nS in control to 48 ± 3 nS in DA and did not return to control levels after wash but increased to 53 ± 4 nS (repeated measures ANOVA, p < 0.001, Fisher PLSD post hoc tests, Fig. 5E).

Figure 5
DA modulation of Ih activation. A: Current measurements in control and DA, obtained from stepping from a holding potential of −30 mV to potentials between −40 and −120 mV for 15 s. B: Activation curves for Ih conductances in control, ...

The increase in conductance around normal resting membrane potentials in DA was due to a shift of the activation curve in the depolarizing direction and a change in slope, as can be seen more clearly when normalized conductances are plotted (Fig. 5C). The voltage of half activation was significantly more depolarized in DA (−74 ± 2 mV) than in control (−82 ± 2 mV), an effect that washed completely (−83 ± 2 mV) (repeated measures ANOVA, p < 0.001, Fisher PLSD post hoc tests, Fig. 5F). In addition, the total range in which conductance was voltage-dependent broadened (Fig. 5C), as indicated by a significant change in the slope factor from −8.5 ± 0.6 mV in control to −12.9 ± 1.5 mV in DA that also washed (−9.9 ± 0.6 mV) (Fig. 5G).

The changes in conductance at biologically relevant membrane potentials seem small when viewed in reference to the maximal conductance values. However, conductance in DA actually increased to ~150–300% of control values between −70 and −50 mV (Fig. 5D, gray box, black circles). The differences between control and DA are not the consequence of the altered reversal potential in DA. In fact, the depolarizing shift in the reversal potential as measured in DA leads to a reduction of the difference. The gray circles in Fig. 5D show the increase when conductance in DA is calculated with the same reversal potential as in control indicating that, if the change of the reversal potential is ignored, the effect of DA on conductance is even larger.

In contrast to the changes affecting steady state conductances, the activation kinetics did not change. The activation time constants measured from the current response to a step from −30 to −110 mV in control (3.7 ± 0.2 s) and DA (3.8 ± 0.2 s) were not significantly different (paired t-test, p=0.914).

Observed changes in Ih activation are not due to DA effects on other currents

The experiments described above were done in the presence of TTX, 4-AP, and TEA. We previously found no evidence for the presence of axonal Ca2+ currents or Ca2+ activated K+ currents (Ballo and Bucher, 2009; Ballo, unpublished observations). In addition, the unusual voltage range of Ih activation makes it unlikely that other previously unidentified currents directly contaminated our measurements, particularly at more hyperpolarized potentials. However, we wanted to ensure that the changes we observed in DA were solely due to modulation of Ih. To this end, in 3 experiments we added 5 mM CsCl to the cocktail of blockers and used the same voltage clamp protocol as for Ih measurements, first without and then in the presence of DA. Figure 6A shows overlaid current traces obtained in the presence of CsCl (black), and in the presence of CsCl + DA (gray). Neither the holding current nor the step responses showed substantial differences. Figure 6B shows the IV plots from mean values of the 3 experiments. Current values were obtained from the end of the steps and were virtually indistinguishable between CsCl alone and CsCl + DA. We are therefore confident that the observed changes in Ih activation are not contaminated by effects of DA on other currents.

Figure 6
Observed changes in Ih activation were not due to DA effects on other currents. A: Overlaid current responses to the same voltage step protocol used for Ih measurements, in the presence of CsCl (black), and in the presence of CsCl + DA (gray). B: IV plot ...

Changes in Ih activation are not caused by “run-down”

Because the reduction of maximal conductance in DA did not wash completely, we wanted to test if this effect was due to “run down” rather than to a specific effect of DA signaling. Such “run-down” of Ih has been observed in other systems and has been proposed to be due to changing basal cAMP levels during the experimental time course (DiFrancesco et al., 1986; Chen et al., 2001). Therefore, we repeated the Ih measurement in 4 experiments in control saline with the same experimental time course as we used in the DA experiments, i.e. with a 20 min interval between voltage clamp protocols. Fig. 7A shows that repeatedly measuring Ih did not change the activation curve.

Figure 7
Observed changes in Ih activation were due to PKA-independent effects of cAMP. A: Activation curves for Ih measured repeatedly in the absence of DA, but with the same experimental time course (n=4). B: Ih activation curves in control and in the presence ...

Changes in Ih activation are due to increased cAMP levels but not dependent on PKA

The reduction of maximal conductance paired with a depolarizing shift of the activation curve and an increase in the voltage-dependent range are unusual, and the fact that changes in maximal conductance and voltage-dependence are differentially affected during washing raises the question of whether they represent separate mechanisms. Potentially, these changes may not be mediated through the cyclic nucleotide binding domain of the channels. For example, signaling pathways independent of cAMP (Biel et al., 2009; Wahl-Schott and Biel, 2009), as well as PKA-dependent pathways mediating phosphorylation-dependent effects (Chang et al., 1991; Vargas and Lucero, 2002), could play a role. We therefore wanted to test the dependence both on cAMP and on PKA. Because all drugs that elicited peripheral spike initiation did so at lower frequency than DA (Fig. 1C), we used a combination of 30µM IBMX and 10µM forskolin to ensure a substantial increase in cAMP concentration. We measured Ih in control saline and in IBMX + forskolin in 3 experiments. Figure 7B shows that increased cAMP levels have similar effects as application of DA. The maximal conductance is decreased while the activation curve is shifted in the depolarizing direction, so that conductance around biologically relevant membrane potentials is increased. In addition, these changes appear to be independent of PKA signaling. In 3 experiments, we measured Ih in control saline and then applied 20 µM H89 for 20 min. Subsequently, Ih was measured in H89 + DA. Figure 7C shows that H89 neither blocks the reduction in maximal conductance nor the change in voltage-dependence elicited by DA.

The changes in activation properties are not qualitatively affected by space clamp errors

Space clamp errors can significantly distort activation curves measured in neuronal compartments that are not electrotonically compact (Bar-Yehuda and Korngreen, 2008). Therefore, we wanted to make sure that the changes in maximal conductance and voltage-dependence are not qualitatively affected by limited spatial control during voltage clamp recordings. To this end, a multicompartmental mathematical model of the axon was used to simulate effects of space clamp errors. The basic approach was to “reverse engineer” the actual Ih activation parameters that yield the measured experimental values. In two-electrode voltage clamp experiments, the space clamp error does not just depend on the cable properties of the axon but also on the distance between injecting and measuring electrodes. In our experiments electrodes were placed at distances between 0 and 1 mm, usually at about 0.5 mm. We simulated voltage-clamp experiments with varying electrode distances. Figure 8A shows Boltzman plots of the experimental values from Figure 5, but here normalized to the maximal conductance in control. Figure 8B shows the reconstructed activation curves from a simulated two-electrode voltage clamp experiment with a distance of 0.5 mm between injection and measurement electrodes. The maximal specific membrane conductances (conductance/membrane area) in control and DA were normalized to the control value. Even though activation is steeper and at more depolarized potentials, the differences between control and DA are qualitatively the same. Maximal conductance is reduced to 62% of control in DA (compared to 73% in the experimental data), the voltage of half activation changes in the depolarizing direction from −80 mV in control to −72.5 mV in DA (compared to −82.0 and −73.8 mV in the experimental data), and the slope is shallower in DA (with the slope factor changing from 5.5 to 9.2 mV, compared to 8.5 and 12.9 mV in the experimental data). Note that the parameter values reported above for the model are values actually put into the model; these values produce a good match between the voltage clamp measurements in the model and the experimental measurements both in control and in DA. Most importantly, conductance at biologically relevant membrane potentials is increased despite the reduction in maximal conductance (shaded areas in Fig. 8A and B). We are therefore confident that our experimental findings regarding the effect of DA on the steady-state activation properties of Ih are not qualitatively affected by space clamp errors.

Figure 8
The experimentally observed reduction of maximal conductance and increase of conductance at biologically relevant membrane potentials (shaded areas) are not qualitatively different when space clamp errors are considered. A: Ih activation curves plotted ...

Because the goal of this model was to see whether the effect of DA on Ih is affected by space clamp measurements, we used the model to find out the extent to which the distance between the recording and measurement electrodes changed the measured DA effects. Figure 8C, D and E show how, in the model, the distance between the two electrodes affects the measured DA effects on maximal conductance, voltage of half activation, and the slope factor, respectively. As in the experimental data obtained at an electrode distance of ~ 0.5 mm, in the range of 0.0 to 1.9 mm the maximal conductance is always reduced in DA (Fig. 8C), the voltage of half activation is always shifted in the depolarizing direction (Fig. 8D), and the slope factor is shifted in the negative direction (Fig. 8E). Therefore, the steady state activation properties of Ih would not be qualitatively affected by space clamp errors even at electrode distances greater than in our experiments.


We show here that in the PD axons of H. americanus, depolarization and peripheral spike initiation elicited by DA are likely caused by a D1-type receptor mechanism increasing cAMP levels. The predominant effect of increased cAMP concentration is a modulation of Ih, resulting in an increase of conductance at biologically relevant membrane potentials.

Dopaminergic signaling in the PD axons

In the STNS of decapods, DA effects are mostly mediated by different types of G-proteins (Clark et al., 2008). Although D2-type receptors can couple through multiple types of G-proteins, some of which can increase cAMP levels in a heterologous expression system (Clark and Baro, 2007), increased cAMP levels are predominantly due to D1-type receptors in the native tissue (Clark et al., 2008). We show that the DA effect on the PD axons is consistent with an increase in cAMP. Application of D1-type receptor agonists as well as pharmacological activation of AC and inhibition of PDE mimicked peripheral spike initiation as seen in response to DA.

We did not see effects of inhibitors of AC, and cAMP analogs alone did not elicit peripheral spikes. AC blockers have been used successfully in crustacean olfactory neurons (Doolin and Ache, 2005), but the pharmacological profile of AC in the PD axons may be different. The small effect of cAMP analogs may be due to insufficient access to the axonal cytosol in whole nerve tissue, or to poor access to compartmentalized GPCR signaling protein complexes (Hall and Lefkowitz, 2002; Rebois and Hebert, 2003).

We can neither exclude the possibility that additional types of DA receptors are expressed in the PD axons, nor that additional signaling mechanisms, other than activation of stimulating G-proteins, play a role. However, our results are consistent with a DA mediated increase in cAMP levels, which suggests a D1-type receptor mechanism.

Interestingly, the PD neurons in the spiny lobster Panulirus interruptus only express D2-type receptors in the STG neuropil (Oginsky et al., 2010), and Ih is not modulated by DA when measured from the soma (Peck et al., 2006). Our results may either point to differences in receptors and signaling pathways between cell compartments or to a difference between species.

Activation properties of Ih in the PD axon

Ih shows similar characteristics between vertebrates and invertebrates. In vertebrates, four genes code for pore-forming subunits (HCN1–4), which form different homo- or heterotetramers with distinct properties (Robinson and Siegelbaum, 2003; Biel et al., 2009; Wahl-Schott and Biel, 2009). In crustaceans, as in other invertebrates, extensive splicing of a single gene gives rise to multiple potential transcripts of HCN-homologs (Gisselmann et al., 2005; Ouyang et al., 2007). Despite similar voltage-dependence and pharmacology, channel activation in crustaceans is substantially slower than in vertebrates. Our measurements of Ih in the PD axons show maximal conductance values, voltage-dependence, and activation kinetics that are within the range of those in central compartments of stomatogastric neurons (Golowasch and Marder, 1992; Kiehn and Harris-Warrick, 1992; Harris-Warrick et al., 1995; Peck et al., 2006; Ouyang et al., 2007).

Dopamine modulation of Ih

DA receptor pathways commonly affect cAMP production (Gingrich and Caron, 1993; Neve et al., 2004). Due to the fact that HCN-type channels have a cyclic-nucleotide binding domain (Robinson and Siegelbaum, 2003; Biel et al., 2009; Wahl-Schott and Biel, 2009), Ih is a fairly common target of DA modulation (Jiang et al., 1993; Wu and Hablitz, 2005; Peck et al., 2006; Chen and Yang, 2007; Deng et al., 2007). In the STG, DA modulates many voltage-gated conductances in a cell-type specific manner, including Ih (Harris-Warrick et al., 1998; Kloppenburg et al., 1999; Kloppenburg et al., 2000; Peck et al., 2001; Johnson et al., 2003; Gruhn et al., 2005; Peck et al., 2006). In voltage clamp recordings of Ih from somata of a subset of STG neurons in P. interruptus, DA both shifts the activation curve and increases maximal conductance (Peck et al., 2006). In contrast, we found a decrease in maximal conductance in the PD axons, accompanied by a shift in activation curve and change in slope. The changes in the voltage-dependence were sufficient to increase conductance at biologically relevant potentials, despite the decrease in maximal conductance. We show that this decrease was neither due to other currents nor to “run-down”, and similar changes in maximal conductance and voltage-dependence were observed when cAMP levels were raised pharmacologically. With the caveat that the specificity of H89 in this system is not well known, DA modulation of Ih did not appear to depend on PKA, as it is in the mammalian heart and in rat olfactory neurons (Chang et al., 1991; Vargas and Lucero, 2002). The positive effect of H89 on spike initiation (Fig. 2B and C) could be due to modulation of other ionic conductances.

We also excluded the possibility that the effects of DA on Ih activation were qualitatively changed by limited spatial control during our voltage clamp experiments. Space clamp errors can substantially distort activation curve measurements (Bar-Yehuda and Korngreen, 2008), and a change in Ih should change the specific membrane resistance and therefore the length constant of the axon. However, we show in a computational model that both the change in maximal conductance and the changes in voltage-dependence are qualitatively similar with or without correction for space clamp errors.

Another surprising result was the DA-induced change in reversal potential. Permeability of HCN channels for Na+ and K+ are not independent, and Na+ permeability is dependent on the extracellular K+ concentration (Ludwig et al., 1998). We can only speculate if such a change in K+ concentration could occur at the PD axons, for example due to a DA effect on surrounding glia cells. However, the observed changes in activation properties are not due to the change in reversal potential, as such a change reduces the difference in conductance between control and DA at biologically relevant potentials (Fig. 5D).

Functional implications of the presence and DA modulation of Ih in the PD axons

Ih is commonly found in non-synaptic axonal membrane, both in peripheral and central neurons (Nashmi and Fehlings, 2001; Krishnan et al., 2009; Nusser, 2009). One possible function of axonal Ih is to balance activity-dependent hyperpolarization caused by activation of K+ currents or the Na+/K+-pump to improve the conduction reliability during repetitive spiking (Grafe et al., 1997; Soleng et al., 2003; Kiernan et al., 2004; Baginskas et al., 2009).

The PD axons display poor temporal fidelity in control saline, as conduction velocity during normal rhythmic motor activity changes substantially over the course of single bursts (Ballo and Bucher, 2009). Inward rectification through Ih potentially plays an important role in balancing a slow after-hyperpolarization, and this “tug-o-war” renders the axonal interburst membrane potential dependent on the strength of ongoing activity (Ballo and Bucher, 2009). Because of slow after-hyperpolarization, the membrane potential between bursts is the more hyperpolarized the stronger the bursting activity is. Enhancement of Ih by DA causes increased inward rectification and therefore less hyperpolarization. Because spike conduction velocity should depend on the resting membrane potential, Ih in the PD axons may be crucial for controlling temporal fidelity of axonal spike conduction, and DA modulation of Ih may have a substantial effect on this fidelity.

How common is neuromodulation of axon trunks?

There still is a dearth of information about the specific spatial distribution of receptors and ion channels in neurons (Trimmer and Rhodes, 2004; Nusser, 2009), and physiological recordings from axons in many neuron types are difficult with conventional methods (Debanne, 2004). That said, there are examples for axonal neuromodulation from both invertebrate and vertebrate preparations. Acetylcholine controls axonal excitability in the thalamocortical pathway (Kawai et al., 2007), induces Ca2+ influx in optic nerve axons (Zhang et al., 2004), and does both in unmyelinated peripheral c-fibers (Lang et al., 2003). GABA blocks spike conduction in some mammalian sensory axons (Verdier et al., 2003), inhibits Ca2+ transients in developing optic nerve (Sun and Chiu, 1999), and causes changes in spike conduction in spinal and optic nerve axons (Sakatani et al., 1991; Sakatani et al., 1993). Serotonin modulates excitability in unmyelinated peripheral nerve fibers (Lang et al., 2006), and controls conduction block in leech sensory neurons (Mar and Drapeau, 1996; Scuri et al., 2007).

Several examples come from the STNS of crabs, with demonstrated physiological functions. Octopamine elicits spiking in the axon of a descending projection neuron, centimeters from central neuropil (Goaillard et al., 2004). It also activates the axon of a proprioceptive neuron at an additional spike initiation site distant from the muscle-tendon organ it innervates (Daur et al., 2009). In both cases, additional spiking generated in the axon affects pattern generation in the target circuits. In a stomatogastric motor axon, centrally generated bursts trigger sustained peripheral spike initiation in the presence of serotonin, which prolongs contraction in a subset of target muscles (Meyrand et al., 1992). These examples and our results argue that axon trunks do not just faithfully conduct spikes, but can play an important role in shaping neuronal output


This work was supported by National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke Grant NS058825 to DB. JCK and PT were supported by a National Science Foundation REU site award to the Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience (NSF 0648969). FN was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health Grant MH60605. The authors would like to thank Drs. Jorge Golowasch, Peter A. Anderson and Adam L. Taylor for helpful discussions.


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