Lesions of the dorsal tegmental nuclei disrupt control of navigation by distal landmarks in cued, directional, and place variants of the Morris water task

Behav Neurosci. 2013 Aug;127(4):566-81. doi: 10.1037/a0033087. Epub 2013 Jun 3.


Navigation depends on a network of neural systems that accurately monitor an animal's spatial orientation in an environment. Within this navigation system are head direction (HD) cells which discharge as a function of an animal's directional heading, providing an animal with a neural compass to guide ongoing spatial behavior. Experiments were designed to test this hypothesis by damaging the dorsal tegmental nucleus (DTN), a midbrain structure that plays a critical role in the generation of the rodent HD cell signal, and evaluating landmark based navigation using variants of the Morris water task. In Experiments 1 and 2, shams and DTN-lesioned rats were trained to navigate toward a cued platform in the presence of a constellation of distal landmarks located outside the pool. After reaching a training criteria, rats were tested in three probe trials in which (a) the cued platform was completely removed from the pool, (b) the pool was repositioned and the cued platform remained in the same absolute location with respect to distal landmarks, or (c) the pool was repositioned and the cued platform remained in the same relative location in the pool. In general, DTN-lesioned rats required more training trials to reach performance criterion, were less accurate to navigate to the platform position when it was removed, and navigated directly to the cued platform regardless of its position in the pool, indicating a general absence of control over navigation by distal landmarks. In Experiment 3, DTN and control rats were trained in directional and place navigation variants of the water task where the pool was repositioned for each training trial and a hidden platform was placed either in the same relative location (direction) in the pool or in the same absolute location (place) in the distal room reference frame. DTN-lesioned rats were initially impaired in the direction task, but ultimately performed as well as controls. In the place task, DTN-lesioned rats were severely impaired and displayed little evidence of improvement over the course of training. Together, these results support the conclusion that the DTN is required for accurate landmark navigation.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cues*
  • Environment*
  • Female
  • Male
  • Maze Learning / physiology*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Long-Evans
  • Tegmentum Mesencephali / pathology
  • Tegmentum Mesencephali / physiology*