Behavioral neuroscience

The head direction cell system and behavior: The effects of lesions to the lateral mammillary bodies on spatial memory in a novel landmark task and in the water maze.

PMID 26501176


The head direction system is composed of neurons found in a number of connected brain areas that fire in a sharply tuned, directional way. The function of this system, however, has not been fully established. To assess this, we devised a novel spatial landmark task, comparable to the paradigms in which stimulus control has been assessed for spatially tuned neurons. The task took place in a large cylinder and required rats to dig in a specific sand cup, from among 16 alternatives, to obtain a food reward. The reinforced cup was in a fixed location relative to a salient landmark, and probe sessions confirmed that the landmark exerted stimulus control over the rats' cup choices. To assess the contribution of the head direction cell system to this memory task, half of the animals received ibotenic acid infusions into the lateral mammillary nuclei (LMN), an essential node in the head direction network, while the other received sham lesions. No differences were observed in performance of this task between the 2 groups. Animals with LMN lesions were impaired, however, in reversal learning on a water maze task. These results suggest that the LMN, and potentially the head direction cell system, are not essential for the use of visual landmarks to guide spatial behavior.