The Orienting Reflex Reveals Behavioral States Set by Demanding Contexts: Role of the Superior Colliculus

J Neurosci. 2023 Mar 8;43(10):1778-1796. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1643-22.2023. Epub 2023 Feb 7.


Sensory stimuli can trigger an orienting reflex (response) by which animals move the head to position their sensors (e.g., eyes, pinna, whiskers). Orienting responses may be important to evaluate stimuli that call for action (e.g., approach, escape, ignore), but little is known about the dynamics of orienting responses in the context of goal-directed actions. Using mice of either sex, we found that, during a signaled avoidance action, the orienting response evoked by the conditioned stimulus (CS) consisted of a fast head movement containing rotational and translational components that varied substantially as a function of the behavioral and underlying brain states of the animal set by different task contingencies. Larger CS-evoked orienting responses were associated with high-intensity auditory stimuli, failures to produce the appropriate signaled action, and behavioral states resulting from uncertain or demanding situations and the animal's ability to cope with them. As a prototypical orienting neural circuit, we confirmed that the superior colliculus controls and codes the direction of spontaneous exploratory orienting movements. In addition, superior colliculus activity correlated with CS-evoked orienting responses, and either its optogenetic inhibition or excitation potentiated CS-evoked orienting responses, which are likely generated downstream in the medulla. CS-evoked orienting responses may be a useful probe to assess behavioral and related brain states, and state-dependent modulation of orienting responses may involve the superior colliculus.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Humans and other animals produce an orienting reflex (also known as orienting response) by which they rapidly orient their head and sensors to evaluate novel or salient stimuli. Spontaneous orienting movements also occur during exploration of the environment in the absence of explicit, salient stimuli. We monitored stimulus-evoked orienting responses in mice performing signaled avoidance behaviors and found that these responses reflect the behavioral state of the animal set by contextual demands and the animal's ability to cope with them. Various experiments involving the superior colliculus revealed a well-established role in spontaneous orienting but only an influencing effect over orienting responses. Stimulus-evoked orienting responses may be a useful probe of behavioral and related brain states.

Keywords: avoidance; behavioral states; escape; midbrain; orienting.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Avoidance Learning
  • Conditioning, Operant
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Movement
  • Reflex*
  • Superior Colliculi* / physiology