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Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience



Neuronal networks

In order to understand how behaviours are generated we need to understand the networks underlying sensory, motor, and cognitive functions. Network activity reflects the molecular, cellular, and synaptic properties of its component neurons. We thus (at least) need to know the neurons that form a network, their connectivity, and their functional properties.

Network analyses are complicated by the large number of components that typically have to be studied, and the difficulties of directly relating cellular properties to behaviourally-relevant outputs. We use the locomotor network in the spinal cord of the lamprey, a model vertebrate system, to examine general principles of network function. This network generates alternating muscle activity on the left and right sides of the body. While the lamprey locomotor network is claimed and frequently cited as being characterised, in reality there are many areas of uncertainty, gaps that are ignored or assumed, and even examples of claimed experimental data that does not exist. These aspects need to be addressed before we can claim any degree of understanding. We combine electrophysiological, computational, molecular, and anatomical approaches to focus on several network aspects:

Activity-dependent plasticity of network synapses

Activity-dependent synaptic plasticity has been studied extensively, with a focus on long-term changes. We are examining the role of the short-term activity-dependent plasticity that develops during repetitive cycles of network activity at specific types of network synapses, and how the different forms of activity-dependent plasticity at different network synapse interact to influence the patterning of ongoing network outputs. This is done using experimental and computational approaches.

Cellular, synaptic, and network variability

Variability has traditionally been ignored in network analyses. It is now recognized that variability is an intrinsic component of nervous systems (and should be of any adaptive physiological system), that can influence cellular and synaptic function and plasticity, and thus network function. We are examining variability within identified neuronal and synaptic classes, and how this influences network outputs (which are also highly variable) and network plasticity.

Network plasticity

While a networks organisation and functional properties must generate reliable outputs, the output may need to rapidly change. This can be evoked by activity- or neuromodulator-dependent plasticity of cellular and synaptic properties. While these mechanisms can be studied independently, interactions can occur within and between these effects: synaptic activity or modulation can influence activity-dependent synaptic plasticity (“metaplasticity”); neuronal activity can influence neuromodulator release; and neuromodulators can interact (“metamodulation”). Cellular and synaptic properties are thus not simply plastic, but plasticity is both plastic and modulatory. The potential complexity or subtlety resulting from these interactions, which are likely to occur under natural conditions, is daunting. We are using the locomotor network to examine these interactive effects.

Network changes following functional recovery after spinal cord injury

The lamprey, and other lower vertebrates, recovers locomotor function after complete spinal cord lesions. Analyses of this effect have focused on the regrowth of axons across lesion sites. We are instead examining how network organisation and functional properties change above and below spinal cord lesion sites. We have identified a range of morphological and functional changes in the locomotor network, in sensory inputs, and in regenerated axons. There are also changes in neuromodulatory effects after lesioning, which suggest that pharmacological approaches to spinal cord injury cannot be based on an understanding of modulatory effects in the unlesioned spinal cord. We now need trying to relate the varied changes we have identified to the recovery of locomotor function.


Prof Vipin Srivastava, University of Hyderabad



Key publications: 

Parker, D. (2022). The functional properties of synapses made by regenerated axons across spinal cord lesion sites in lamprey. Neural Regeneration Research Oct;17(10):2272-2277.

Parker, D. (2021). Understanding brain circuits: do new experimental tools need to address new concepts? In C. F. C. John Bickle, Ann-Sophie Barwich (Ed.), The Tools of Neuroscience Experiment: Philosophical and Scientific Perspectives (pp. 239-259). New York: Routledge.

Parker D (2019) Psychoneural reduction: a perspective from neural circuits. Biology and Philosophy 34:44

Becker M, Parker D (2019) Time course of functional changes in locomotor and sensory systems after spinal cord lesions in lamprey. Journal of Neurophysiology 121:2323-2335.

Svensson E, Aspergis-Schoute J, Burnstock G, Nusbaum M, Parker D, Schioth H (2019) General Principles of Neuronal Co-transmission: Insights From Multiple Model Systems. Frontiers in Neural Circuits 21 January 2019 |

Parker D (2018) Kuhnian revolutions in neuroscience: the role of tool development. Biology and Philosophy 33:17.

Parker D (2017) The Lesioned Spinal Cord Is a "New" Spinal Cord: Evidence from Functional Changes after Spinal Injury in Lamprey. Frontiers in Neural Circuits 11:84.

McClelland TJ, Parker D (2017) Inverse modulation of motor neuron cellular and synaptic properties can maintain the same motor output. Neuroscience 360:28-38.

Jia Y, Parker D, (2016), Short-Term Synaptic Plasticity at Interneuronal Synapses Could Sculpt Rhythmic Motor Patterns. Frontiers in Neural Circuits 10:4

Becker MI, Parker D, (2015), Changes in functional properties and 5-HT modulation above and below a spinal transection in lamprey, Frontiers in Neural Circuits, 8:148

Parker D, (2015), Synaptic Variability Introduces State-Dependent Modulation of Excitatory Spinal Cord Synapses, Neural Plasticity, Volume 2015, Article ID 512156

Srivastava V, Sampath S, Parker DJ, (2014), Overcoming Catastrophic Interference in Connectionist Networks Using Gram-Schmidt Orthogonalization, PLoS ONE, 9(9):e105619

Svensson E, Kim O, Parker D, (2013), Altered GABA and somatostatin modulation of proprioceptive feedback after spinal cord injury in lamprey, Neuroscience, 235:109-118

Cooke R, Luco S, Parker D (2012) Manipulations of spinal cord excitability evoke developmentally-dependent compensatory changes in the lamprey spinal cord. J Comp Physiol A 198:25-41.

Hoffman N, Parker D, (2011), Interactive and individual effects of sensory potentiation and region-specific changes in excitability after spinal cord injury, Neuroscience, 199:563-76

Parker D (2010) Neuronal network analyses: premises, promises and uncertainties.  Phil Trans R Soc Lond B 365:2315-2328.

Hoffman N, Parker D (2010) Lesioning alters functional properties in isolated spinal cord hemisegmental networks. Neuroscience 168:732-743.

Cooke RM, Parker D, (2009), Locomotor recovery after spinal cord lesions in the lamprey is associated with functional and ultrastructural changes below lesion sites, J Neurotrauma, 26(4):597-612

Bevan S, Vakharia V, Parker D (2008) Changes in gene expression and integrin-mediated structural changes are associated with long-term plasticity of a spinal cord locomotor network. Neuroscience 152:160-168.

Baudoux S, Parker D (2008) Glial toxin-mediated disruption of spinal cord locomotor network fucntion and its modulation by 5-HT. Neuroscience 153:1332–1343.

Srivastava V, Parker D, Edwards S (2008) The nervous system might ‘orthogonalize’ to discriminate. J Theor Biol 253:514-517.

Parker D, Bevan S, (2007), Modulation of cellular and synaptic variability in the lamprey spinal cord, J Neurophysiol, 97(1):44-56

Parker D, Gilbey T (2007) Developmental differences in neuromodulation and synaptic properties in the lamprey spinal cord. Neuroscience 145:142-152.

Parker D, (2006), Complexities and uncertainties of neuronal network function, Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, 361(1465):81-99

Parker D (2005) Pharmacological approaches to functional recovery after spinal injury. Current Drug Targets - CNS and Neurological Disorders 4:195-210.

Bevan S, Parker D, (2004), Metaplastic facilitation and ultrastructural changes in synaptic properties are associated with long-term modulation of the lamprey locomotor network, J Neurosci, 24(42):9458-68

Parker D (2003) Activity-Dependent Feedforward Inhibition Modulates Synaptic Transmission in a Spinal Locomotor Network. J Neurosci 23:11085-11093.

Parker D, (2003), Variable properties in a single class of excitatory spinal synapse, J Neurosci, 23(8):3154-3163


Teaching and Supervisions


I am course organiser for 1b Neurobiology. I lecture on motor systems on 1b Neurobiology, and on Part 2 modules on cellular physiology, cellular and molecular neuroscience, and neural circuits.

University Senior Lecturer

Contact Details

+44 (0) 1223 333836, Fax: +44 (0) 1223 333840
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