Splice-variant products of the R15 neuropeptide gene are differentially expressed within the CNS of Aplysia. The goal of this study was to test whether the neurons in the abdominal ganglion that express the peptides encoded by this gene are part of a common circuit. Expression of R15 peptides had been demonstrated previously in neuron R15. Using a combination of immunocytochemical and analytical methods, this study demonstrated that R15 peptides are also expressed in heart exciter neuron RBHE, the two L9G gill motoneurons, and L40 - a newly identified interneuron. Mass spectrometric profiling of individual neurons that exhibit R15 peptide-like immunoreactivity confirmed the mutually exclusive expression of two splice-variant forms of R15 peptides in different neurons. The L9G cells were found to co-express pedal peptide in addition to the R15 peptides. The R15 peptide-expressing neurons examined here were shown to be part of an autonomic control circuit that is active during fictive locomotion. Activity in this circuit contributes to implementing a central command that may help to coordinate autonomic activity with escape locomotion. Chronic extracellular nerve recording was used to determine the activity patterns of a subset of neurons of this circuit in vivo. These results demonstrate the potential utility of using shared patterns of neuropeptide expression as a guide for neural circuit identification.
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