The stretch receptor organs of Alexandrowicz in lobster and crayfish possess sensory neurons which have their cell bodies in the periphery. The cell bodies send dendrites into a fine nearby muscle strand and at the opposite pole they give rise to an axon running to the central nervous system. Mechanisms of excitation between dendrites, cell soma, and axon have been studied in completely isolated receptor structures with the cell components under visual observation. Two sensory neuron types were investigated, those which adapt rapidly to stretch, the fast cells, and those which adapt slowly, the slow cells.
1. Potentials recorded from the cell body of the neurons with intracellular leads gave resting potentials of 70 to 80 mv. and action potentials which in fresh preparations exceeded the resting potentials by about 10 to 20 mv. In some experiments chymotrypsin or trypsin was used to make cell impalement easier. They did not appreciably alter resting or action potentials.
2. It has been shown that normally excitation starts in the distal portion of dendrites which are depolarized by stretch deformation. The changed potential within the dendritic terminals can persist for the duration of stretch and is called the generator potential. Secondarily, by electrotonic spread, the generator potential reduces the resting potential of the nearby cell soma. This excitation spread between dendrites and soma is seen best during subthreshold excitation by relatively small stretches of normal cells. It is also seen during the whole range of receptor stretch in neurons in which nerve conduction has been blocked by an anesthetic. The electrotonic changes in the cells are graded, reflecting the magnitude and rate of rise of stretch, and presumably the changing levels of the generator potential. Thus in the present neurons the resting potential and the excitability level of the cell soma can be set and controlled over a wide range by local events within the dendrites.
3. Whenever stretch reduces the resting membrane potential, measured in the relaxed state in the cell body, by 8 to 12 mv. in slow cells and by 17 to 22 mv. in fast cells, conducted impulses are initiated. It is thought that in slow cells conducted impulses are initiated in the dendrites while in fast cells they arise in the cell body or near to it. In fresh preparations the speed of stretch does not appreciably influence the membrane threshold for discharges, while during developing fatigue the firing level is higher when extension is gradual.
4. Some of the specific neuron characteristics are: Fast receptor cells have a relatively high threshold to stretch. During prolonged stretch the depolarization of the cell soma is not well maintained, presumably due to a decline in the generator potential, resulting in cessation of discharges in less than a minute. This appears to be the basis of the relatively rapid adaptation. A residual subthreshold depolarization can persist for many minutes of stretch. Slow cells which resemble the sensory fibers of vertebrate spindles are excited by weak stretch. Their discharge rate remains remarkably constant for long periods. It is concluded that, once threshold excitation is reached, the generator potential within slow cell dendrites is well maintained for the duration of stretch. Possible reasons for differences in discharge properties between fast and slow cells are discussed.
5. If stretch of receptor cells is gradually continued above threshold, the discharge frequency first increases over a considerable range without an appreciable change in the firing level for discharges. Beyond that range the membrane threshold for conducted responses of the cell soma rises, the impulses become smaller, and partial conduction in the soma-axon boundary region occurs. At a critical depolarization level which may be maintained for many minutes, all conduction ceases. These overstretch phenomena are reversible and resemble cathodal block.
6. The following general scheme of excitation is proposed: stretch deformation of dendritic terminals → generator potential → electrotonic spread toward the cell soma (prepotential) → dendrite-soma impulse → axon impulse.
7. Following release of stretch a transient hyperpolarization of slow receptor cells was seen. This off effect is influenced by the speed of relaxation.
8. Membrane potential changes recorded in the cell bodies serve as very sensitive detectors of activity within the receptor muscle bundles, indicating the extent and time course of contractile events.