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Professor Alan Roberts

How the central nervous system controls locomotion and other behaviour in frog tadpoles

Our strategy is to study a very simple nervous system hoping to understand the basic rules for operation and development. We study the central nervous system of very young Xenopus tadpoles to try to understand how the animal's simple swimming and struggling behaviour arises. First we use high-speed videos to define the responses to sensory stimuli. Then we study how CNS neuronal networks control this behaviour.

We  use an immobilised preparation where pairs of CNS neurons can be seen using a water immersion lens, recorded using whole cell patch methods and later examined anatomically using neurobiotin filling. This allows us to examine synaptic interactions and as well as activity in response to natural sensory stimuli. We are currently using a unique measuring microscope to define 3D morphology of CNS neurons.

We are interested in overall organisation of neuronal control systems and the cellular and synaptic properties that underlie this. We use computer network models to evaluate our findings and are presently trying to build a self-assembling anatomical CNS model of the tadpole's CNS with support from BBSRC.

Our lab is now closed but collaborations continue with Wen-Chang Li at University of St Andrews and with Roman Borisyuk and Joel Tabak at University of Exeter.

Group webpage:

Research keywords

  • neuronal networks
  • spinal cord
  • synapse
  • Xenopus
  • patch clamp
  • electrophysiology
  • interneuron
  • network modelling

Research methods

  • Whole-cell patch clamp under visual control
  • single neuron morphology and reconstruction
  • neuronal network modelling
  • high-speed video

Research equipment

  • Cellular electrophysiology

Research findings

  • Development of neurons and synaptic connections in CNS networks of neurons controlling tadpole responses and swimming.
  • Identification and roles for brain and spinal cord neurons in the generation of simple behaviour.


  • Dr Steve Soffe
  • Biological Sciences
  • University of Bristol
    Dr Wen-Chang Li
  • Biological Sciences
  • University of St Andrews
    Professor Roman Borisyuk
  • Mathematics and Computing
  • University of Plymouth