Accurate navigation depends on a network of neural systems that encode the moment-to-moment changes in an animal's directional orientation and location in space. Within this navigation system are head direction (HD) cells, which fire persistently when an animal's head is pointed in a particular direction (Sharp et al., 2001a; Taube, 2007). HD cells are widely thought to underlie an animal's sense of spatial orientation, and research over the last 25+ years has revealed that this robust spatial signal is widely distributed across subcortical and cortical limbic areas. The purpose of the present review is to summarize some of the recent studies arguing that the origin of the HD signal resides subcortically, specifically within the reciprocal connections of the dorsal tegmental and lateral mammillary nuclei. Furthermore, we review recent work identifying "bursting" cellular activity in the HD cell circuit after lesions of the vestibular system, and relate these observations to the long held view that attractor network mechanisms underlie HD signal generation. Finally, we summarize anatomical and physiological work suggesting that this attractor network architecture may reside within the tegmento-mammillary circuit.
Keywords: entorhinal; head direction; hippocampus; navigation; spatial orientation.