The Mauthner neurons have become synonymous with the C start evasive response of fishes. C starts are a two-part movement pattern. First, the fish bends its body so that it has a C-like profile (stage 1) when viewed from above. Second, the fish rapidly accelerates away from its starting position (stage 2). Until recently, it has not been possible to determine the contribution of Mauthner cell activity to the expression of this behavior. In this paper we focus on three of our recent papers that address this issue. Our work combines high-speed digital image analysis of the C start with chronic Mauthner cell and electromyographic recordings, lesions of the Mauthner cells, and stimulation of single Mauthner axons in swimming fishes. This work shows that the firing of the Mauthner cell results in a short-latency body contraction that orients the initial stage of the C start away from the direction of the threatening stimulus. The direction of the escape trajectory, however, is more finely tuned to stimulus angle than can be explained by the firing of just the Mauthner cell and its postsynaptic followers. Precise control of trajectory must, therefore, require participation of other neurons. These neurons together with the Mauthner cell form a system that we term the brain stem escape network. We have identified candidate neurons of this network which can now be studied at the single-cell level. Because of both its accessibility for neurophysiological study and its neuroanatomical simplicity, we assert that the brain stem escape network is a useful preparation for understanding fundamental processes of sensorimotor integration in the brain stem.

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