Ascending control of arousal and motivation: role of nucleus incertus and its peptide neuromodulators in behavioural responses to stress

J Neuroendocrinol. 2015 Jun;27(6):457-67. doi: 10.1111/jne.12259.


Arousal is a process that involves the activation of ascending neural pathways originating in the rostral pons that project to the forebrain through the midbrain reticular formation to promote the activation of key cortical, thalamic, hypothalamic and limbic centres. Established modulators of arousal include the cholinergic, serotonergic, noradrenergic and dopaminergic networks originating in the pons and midbrain. Recent data indicate that a population of largely GABAergic projection neurones located in the nucleus incertus (NI) are also involved in arousal and motivational processes. The NI has prominent efferent connections with distinct hypothalamic, amygdalar and thalamic nuclei, in addition to dense projections to key brain regions associated with the generation and pacing of hippocampal activity. The NI receives strong inputs from the prefrontal cortex, lateral habenula and the interpeduncular and median raphe nuclei, suggesting it is highly integrated in circuits regulating higher cognitive behaviours (hippocampal theta rhythm) and emotion. Anatomical and functional studies have revealed that the NI is a rich source of multiple peptide neuromodulators, including relaxin-3, and may mediate extra-hypothalamic effects of the stress hormone corticotrophin-releasing factor, as well as other key modulators such as orexins and oxytocin. This review provides an overview of earlier studies and highlights more recent research that implicates this neural network in the integration of arousal and motivated behaviours and has begun to identify the associated mechanisms. Future research that should help to better clarify the connectivity and function of the NI in major experimental species and humans is also discussed.

Keywords: arousal; corticotrophin-releasing factor; motivation; nucleus incertus; orexin; oxytocin; relaxin-3; stress.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Animals
  • Arousal*
  • Humans
  • Motivation*
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / physiology*
  • Stress, Physiological*


  • Neurotransmitter Agents