Neural processes that direct an animal's actions toward environmental goals are critical elements for understanding behavior. The hypothalamus is closely associated with motivated behaviors required for survival and reproduction. Intense feeding, drinking, aggressive, and sexual behaviors can be produced by a simple neuronal stimulus applied to discrete hypothalamic regions. What can these "evoked behaviors" teach us about the neural processes that determine behavioral intent and intensity? Small populations of neurons sufficient to evoke a complex motivated behavior may be used as entry points to identify circuits that energize and direct behavior to specific goals. Here, I review recent applications of molecular genetic, optogenetic, and pharmacogenetic approaches that overcome previous limitations for analyzing anatomically complex hypothalamic circuits and their interactions with the rest of the brain. These new tools have the potential to bridge the gaps between neurobiological and psychological thinking about the mechanisms of complex motivated behavior.
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