Tonic nerve activity in skate electroreceptors is thought to result from spontaneous activity of the lumenal membranes of the receptor cells which is modulated by applied stimuli. When physiological conditions are simulated in vitro, the receptor epithelium produces a current which flows inward across the lumenal surface. This epithelial current exhibits small spontaneous sinusoidal fluctuations about the mean that are associated with corresponding but delayed fluctuations in postsynaptic response. Small voltage stimuli produce damped oscillations in the epithelial current similar in time-course to the spontaneous fluctuations. For lumen-negative, excitatory stimuli, these responses are predominantly an increase over the mean inward current. For inhibitory stimuli they are predominantly a decrease. Increased inward current across the lumenal membranes of the receptor cells increases depolarization of the presynaptic membranes in the basal faces leading to increased release of transmitter and an excitatory postsynaptic response. Decreased inward current decreases depolarization of the presynaptic membranes leading to a reduction in transmitter release and an inhibitory postsynaptic response. Clear changes in postsynaptic response are detectable during stimuli as small as 5 microV with saturation occurring at +/- 400 microV. The evoked oscillations in epithelial current are damped and the postsynaptic responses decline during maintained stimuli with large off-responses occurring at stimulus termination. The initial peak of the off-response is similar to the response produced by onset of an oppositely directed stimulus. These observations substantiate the role of receptor cell excitability in the detection of small voltage changes.

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