Tectonigral projections in the primate: a pathway for pre-attentive sensory input to midbrain dopaminergic neurons

Eur J Neurosci. 2009 Feb;29(3):575-87. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-9568.2008.06596.x. Epub 2009 Jan 17.


Much of the evidence linking the short-latency phasic signaling of midbrain dopaminergic neurons with reward-prediction errors used in learning and habit formation comes from recording the visual responses of monkey dopaminergic neurons. However, the information encoded by dopaminergic neuron activity is constrained by the qualities of the afferent visual signals made available to these cells. Recent evidence from rats and cats indicates the primary source of this visual input originates subcortically, via a direct tectonigral projection. The present anatomical study sought to establish whether a direct tectonigral projection is a significant feature of the primate brain. Injections of anterograde tracers into the superior colliculus of macaque monkeys labelled terminal arbors throughout the substantia nigra, with the densest terminations in the dorsal tier. Labelled boutons were found in close association (possibly indicative of synaptic contact) with ventral midbrain neurons staining positively for the dopaminergic marker tyrosine hydroxylase. Injections of retrograde tracer confined to the macaque substantia nigra retrogradely labelled small- to medium-sized neurons in the intermediate and deep layers of the superior colliculus. Together, these data indicate that a direct tectonigral projection is also a feature of the monkey brain, and therefore likely to have been conserved throughout mammalian evolution. Insofar as the superior colliculus is configured to detect unpredicted, biologically salient, sensory events, it may be safer to regard the phasic responses of midbrain dopaminergic neurons as 'sensory prediction errors' rather than 'reward prediction errors', in which case dopamine-based theories of reinforcement learning will require revision.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arousal / physiology
  • Attention / physiology
  • Biological Evolution
  • Brain Mapping
  • Dopamine / physiology*
  • Efferent Pathways / cytology
  • Efferent Pathways / physiology
  • Female
  • Macaca fascicularis
  • Macaca mulatta
  • Male
  • Neurons / cytology*
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Presynaptic Terminals / physiology
  • Presynaptic Terminals / ultrastructure
  • Primates / anatomy & histology*
  • Primates / physiology
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Species Specificity
  • Substantia Nigra / cytology*
  • Substantia Nigra / physiology
  • Superior Colliculi / cytology*
  • Superior Colliculi / physiology
  • Tyrosine 3-Monooxygenase / metabolism
  • Visual Perception / physiology


  • Tyrosine 3-Monooxygenase
  • Dopamine