Organization of ventral tegmental area projections to the ventral tegmental area-nigral complex in the rat

Neuroscience. 2008 Apr 22;153(1):196-213. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2008.02.003. Epub 2008 Feb 15.


The ventral tegmental area (VTA) is a nodal link in reward circuitry. Based on its striatal output, it has been subdivided in a caudomedial part which targets the ventromedial striatum, and a lateral part which targets the ventrolateral striatum [Ikemoto S (2007) Dopamine reward circuitry: two projection systems from the ventral midbrain to the nucleus accumbens-olfactory tubercle complex. Brain Res Rev 56:27-78]. Whether these two VTA parts are interconnected and to what extent the VTA innervates the substantia nigra compacta (SNc) and retrorubral nucleus (RR) are critical issues for understanding information processing in the basal ganglia. Here, VTA projections to the VTA-nigral complex were examined in rats, using Phaseolus vulgaris leucoagglutinin (PHA-L) as anterograde tracer. The results show that the dorsolateral VTA projects to itself, as well as to the dorsal tier of the SNc and RR, largely avoiding the caudomedial VTA. The ventrolateral VTA innervates mainly the interfascicular nucleus. The components of the caudomedial VTA (the interfascicular, paranigral and caudal linear nuclei) are connected with each other. In addition, the caudomedial VTA (especially the paranigral and caudal linear nuclei) innervates the lateral VTA, and, to a lesser degree, the SNc and RR. The caudal pole of the VTA sends robust, bilateral projections to virtually all the VTA-nigral complex, which terminate in the dorsal and ventral tiers. Modest inputs from the medial supramammillary nucleus to ventromedial parts of the VTA-nigral complex were also identified. In double-immunostained sections, PHA-L-labeled varicosities were sometimes found apposed to tyrosine hydroxylase-positive neurons in the ventral mesencephalon. Overall, the results underscore that VTA projections to the VTA-nigral complex are substantial and topically organized. In general, these projections, like the spiralated striato-nigro-striatal loops, display a medial-to-lateral organization. This anatomical arrangement conceivably permits the ventromedial striatum to influence the activity of the lateral striatum. The caudal pole of the VTA appears to be a critical site for a global recruitment of the mesotelencephalic system.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Axonal Transport / physiology
  • Brain Mapping
  • Dopamine / metabolism
  • Female
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Neural Pathways / anatomy & histology
  • Neural Pathways / metabolism
  • Neurons / cytology
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Phytohemagglutinins
  • Presynaptic Terminals / metabolism
  • Rats
  • Rats, Wistar
  • Staining and Labeling
  • Substantia Nigra / anatomy & histology*
  • Substantia Nigra / metabolism
  • Tegmentum Mesencephali / anatomy & histology
  • Tegmentum Mesencephali / metabolism
  • Tyrosine 3-Monooxygenase / metabolism
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / anatomy & histology*
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / metabolism


  • Phytohemagglutinins
  • leukoagglutinins, plants
  • Tyrosine 3-Monooxygenase
  • Dopamine