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Anatomical pathways from the optic tectum to the spinal cord subserving orienting movements in the barn owl

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Electrical stimulation of the optic tectum in many vertebrate species elicits eye, head or body orienting movements in the direction of the receptive field location recorded at the site of stimulation; in the barn owl, tectal stimulation produces short latency saccadic head movements (du Lac and Knudsen 1990). However, the barn owl, like other avians, lacks a direct projection from the tectum to the spinal cord, implying that less direct connections underlie tectally mediated head movements. In order to determine the pathways by which the tectum gains access to spinal cord circuitry, we searched for overlap regions between tectal efferent projections and the locations of cells afferent to the spinal cord. Tectal efferent pathways and terminal fields were revealed by anterograde labeling using horseradish peroxidase (HRP) or tritiated amino acids injected into the optic tectum. Cells afferent to the spinal cord were identified by means of retrograde labeling using HRP, rhodamine, or rhodamine-coupled latex beads injected into the cervical spinal cord. A comparison of results from the anterograde and retrograde labeling experiments demonstrated several areas of overlap. All of the cell groups that both received heavy tectal input and contained a high proportion of cells projecting to the spinal cord were located in the medial half of the midbrain and rhombencephalic tegmentum, and included the red nucleus, the interstitial nucleus of Cajal, the medial reticular formation, the nucleus reticularis pontis gigantocellularis, and the nucleus reticularis pontis oralis. All of these cell groups receive their tectal input from the medial efferent pathway, one of three major output pathways from the tectum. The other two output pathways (the rostral and the caudal) project to regions containing no more than a few scattered cells that are afferent to the spinal cord. Based on these data and on the functions of homologous cell groups in other vertebrates, we hypothesize that the medial efferent pathway and its brainstem target nuclei are primarily responsible for tectally mediated orienting head movements in the barn owl.

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Masino, T., Knudsen, E.I. Anatomical pathways from the optic tectum to the spinal cord subserving orienting movements in the barn owl. Exp Brain Res 92, 194–208 (1992). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00227965

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Key words

  • Tectal efferents
  • Superior colliculus
  • Saccadic head movements
  • Supraspinal descending path-ways
  • Owl