During navigation, animals process temporal sequences of sensory inputs to evaluate the surrounding environment. Thermotaxis of Caenorhabditis elegans is a favorable sensory behavior to elucidate how navigating animals process sensory signals from the environment. Sensation and storage of temperature information by a bilaterally symmetric pair of thermosensory neurons, AFD, is essential for the animals to migrate toward the memorized temperature on a thermal gradient. However, the encoding mechanisms of the spatial environment with the temporal AFD activity during navigation remain to be elucidated. Here, we show how the AFD neuron encodes sequences of sensory inputs to perceive spatial thermal environment. We used simultaneous calcium imaging and tracking system for a freely moving animal and characterized the response property of AFD to the thermal stimulus during thermotaxis. We show that AFD neurons respond to shallow temperature increases with intermittent calcium pulses and detect temperature differences with a critical time window of 20 s, which is similar to the timescale of behavioral elements of C. elegans, such as turning. Convolution of a thermal stimulus and the identified response property successfully reconstructs AFD activity. Conversely, deconvolution of the identified response kernel and AFD activity reconstructs the shallow thermal gradient with migration trajectory, indicating that AFD activity and the migration trajectory are sufficient as the encoded signals for thermal environment. Our study demonstrates bidirectional transformation between environmental thermal information and encoded neural activity.
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