A Signaled Locomotor Avoidance Action Is Fully Represented in the Neural Activity of the Midbrain Tegmentum

J Neurosci. 2021 May 12;41(19):4262-4275. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0027-21.2021. Epub 2021 Mar 31.


Animals, including humans, readily learn to avoid harmful and threatening situations by moving in response to cues that predict the threat (e.g., fire alarm, traffic light). During a negatively reinforced sensory-guided locomotor action, known as signaled active avoidance, animals learn to avoid a harmful unconditioned stimulus (US) by moving away when signaled by a harmless conditioned stimulus (CS) that predicts the threat. CaMKII-expressing neurons in the pedunculopontine tegmentum area (PPT) of the midbrain locomotor region have been shown to play a critical role in the expression of this learned behavior, but the activity of these neurons during learned behavior is unknown. Using calcium imaging fiber photometry in freely behaving mice, we show that PPT neurons sharply activate during presentation of the auditory CS that predicts the threat before onset of avoidance movement. PPT neurons activate further during the succeeding CS-driven avoidance movement, or during the faster US-driven escape movement. PPT neuron activation was weak during slow spontaneous movements but correlated sharply with movement speed and, therefore, with the urgency of the behavior. Moreover, using optogenetics, we found that these neurons must discharge during the signaled avoidance interval for naive mice to effectively learn the active avoidance behavior. As an essential hub for signaled active avoidance, neurons in the midbrain tegmentum process the conditioned cue that predicts the threat and discharge sharply relative to the speed or apparent urgency of the avoidance (learned) and escape (innate) responses.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT During signaled active avoidance behavior, subjects move away to avoid a threat when directed by an innocuous sensory stimulus. Using imaging methods in freely behaving mice, we found that the activity of neurons in a part of the midbrain, known as the pedunculopontime tegmentum, increases during the presentation of the innocuous sensory stimulus that predicts the threat and also during the expression of the learned behavior as mice move away to avoid the threat. In addition, inhibiting these neurons abolishes the ability of mice to learn the behavior. Thus, neurons in this part of the midbrain code and are essential for signaled active avoidance behavior.

Keywords: avoidance; basal ganglia; escape; goal-directed behavior; midbrain; motor plan.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Animals
  • Avoidance Learning / physiology*
  • Cues
  • Escape Reaction / physiology
  • Locomotion / physiology*
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Neuroimaging
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Optogenetics
  • Pedunculopontine Tegmental Nucleus / physiology
  • Photometry
  • Tegmentum Mesencephali / physiology*