Processing the head direction cell signal: a review and commentary

Brain Res Bull. 1996;40(5-6):477-84; discussion 484-6. doi: 10.1016/0361-9230(96)00145-1.


Animals require information about their location and directional heading in order to navigate. Directional information is provided by a population of cells in the postsubiculum and the anterior thalamic nuclei that encode a very accurate, continual representation of the animal's directional heading in the horizontal plane, which is independent of the animal's location. Recent studies indicate that this signal 1) arises either in the anterior thalamic nuclei or in structures upstream from it; 2) is not dependent on an intact hippocampus; 3) receives sensory inputs from both idiothetic and landmark systems; and 4) correlates well with the animal's behavior in a spatial reference memory task. Furthermore, HD cells in the anterior thalamic nuclei appear to encode what the animal's directional heading will be about 40 ms in the future, while HD cells in the postsubiculum encode the animal's current directional heading. Both the electrophysiological and anatomical data suggest that the anterior thalamic nuclei and/or the lateral mammillary nuclei may be the sites of convergence for spatial information derived from landmarks and internally-generated cues. Current evidence also indicates that the vestibular system plays a crucial role in the generation of the HD cell signal. However, the notion that the vestibular system is the sole contributor to the signal generator is difficult to reconcile with several findings; these latter findings are better accounted for with a motor efference copy signal.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Neural Pathways / physiology*
  • Orientation / physiology*
  • Perception / physiology*
  • Vestibular Nuclei / physiology*