Direct and indirect pathways for choosing objects and actions

Eur J Neurosci. 2019 Mar;49(5):637-645. doi: 10.1111/ejn.13876. Epub 2018 Mar 25.


A prominent target of the basal ganglia is the superior colliculus (SC) which controls gaze orientation (saccadic eye movement in primates) to an important object. This 'object choice' is crucial for choosing an action on the object. SC is innervated by the substantia nigra pars reticulata (SNr) which is controlled mainly by the caudate nucleus (CD). This CD-SNr-SC circuit is sensitive to the values of individual objects and facilitates saccades to good objects. The object values are processed differently in two parallel circuits: flexibly by the caudate head (CDh) and stably by the caudate tail (CDt). To choose good objects, we need to reject bad objects. In fact, these contrasting functions are accomplished by the circuit originating from CDt: The direct pathway focuses on good objects and facilitates saccades to them; the indirect pathway focuses on bad objects and suppresses saccades to them. Inactivation of CDt deteriorated the object choice, because saccades to bad objects were no longer suppressed. This suggests that the indirect pathway is important for object choice. However, the direct and indirect pathways for 'object choice', which aim at the same action (i.e., saccade), may not work for 'action choice'. One possibility is that circuits controlling different actions are connected through the indirect pathway. Additional connections of the indirect pathway with brain areas outside the basal ganglia may also provide a wider range of behavioral choice. In conclusion, basal ganglia circuits are composed of the basic direct/indirect pathways and additional connections and thus have acquired multiple functions.

Keywords: caudate tail; monkey; reward value; saccade; substantia nigra.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Caudate Nucleus / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Motor Activity / physiology*
  • Nerve Net / physiology*
  • Neural Pathways / physiology*
  • Saccades / physiology*
  • Substantia Nigra / physiology*
  • Superior Colliculi / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*