Central regulation of somatosensory signals has been extensively studied, but little is known about their regulation in the periphery. Given the widespread exposure of the skin sensory terminals to the environment, it is of interest to explore how somatosensory sensitivity is affected by changes in properties of the skin. In the leech, the annuli that subdivide the skin can be erected under the control of the annulus erector (AE) motoneurons. To analyze whether this surface change influences mechanosensory sensitivity, we studied the responses of low threshold mechanosensory T cells to mechanical stimulation of the skin as AE motoneurons were activated. In segments of the body wall connected to the corresponding ganglion and submerged in an aqueous environment, T cells responded to localized bubbling on the skin and to water flow parallel to its surface. Excitation of AE motoneurons diminished these responses in a way that depended on the motoneuron firing frequency. Video recordings established that the range of AE firing frequencies that produced effective annulus erection coincided with that influencing T cell responses. In isolated ganglia, AE firing had no effect on T cell excitability, suggesting that annulus erection diminished T cell responsiveness to mechanical input. Counteracting this effect, mechanosensory inputs inhibited AE motoneurons. However, because depolarization of AE cells caused a decrease in their input resistance, the more active the motoneuron, the less sensitive it became to inhibitory signals. Thus when brought to fire, AE motoneurons would stay "committed" to a high activity level, and this would limit sensory responsiveness to incoming mechanical signals.
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