The retinohypothalamic tract is one component of the optic nerve that transmits information about environmental luminance levels through medial and lateral branches to four major terminal fields in the hypothalamus. The spatial distribution and organization of axonal projections from each of these four terminal fields were analyzed and compared systematically with the anterograde pathway tracer PHAL in rats where the terminal fields had been labeled with intravitreal injections of a different anterograde pathway tracer, CTb. First, the well-known projections of two medial retinohypothalamic tract targets (the ventrolateral suprachiasmatic nucleus and perisuprachiasmatic region) were confirmed and extended. They share qualitatively similar projections to a well-known set of brain regions thought to control circadian rhythms. Second, the projections of a third medial tract target, the ventromedial part of the anterior hypothalamic nucleus, were analyzed for the first time and shown to resemble qualitatively those from the suprachiasmatic nucleus and perisuprachiasmatic region. And third, projections from the major lateral retinohypothalamic tract target were analyzed for the first time and shown to be quite different from those associated with medial tract targets. This target is a distinct core part of the ventral zone of the anterior group of the lateral hypothalamic area that lies just dorsal to the caudal two-thirds of the supraoptic nucleus. Its axonal projections are to neural networks that control a range of specific goal-oriented behaviors (especially drinking, reproductive, and defensive) along with adaptively appropriate and complementary visceral responses and adjustments to behavioral state.
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