Spatial organization of the pigeon tectorotundal pathway: An interdigitating topographic arrangement



The retinotectofugal system is the main visual pathway projecting upon the telencephalon in birds and many other nonmammalian vertebrates. The ascending tectal projection arises exclusively from cells located in layer 13 of the optic tectum and is directed bilaterally toward the thalamic nucleus rotundus. Although previous studies provided evidence that different types of tectal layer 13 cells project to different subdivisions in Rt, apparently without maintaining a retinotopic organization, the detailed spatial organization of this projection remains obscure. We reexamined the pigeon tectorotundal projection using conventional tracing techniques plus a new method devised to perform small deep-brain microinjections of crystalline tracers. We found that discrete injections involving restricted zones within one subdivision retrogradely label a small fraction of layer 13 cells that are distributed throughout the layer, covering most of the tectal representation of the contralateral visual field. Double-tracer injections in one subdivision label distinct but intermingled sets of layer 13 neurons. These results, together with the tracing of tectal axonal terminal fields in the rotundus, lead us to propose a novel “interdigitating” topographic arrangement for the tectorotundal projection, in which intermingled sets of layer 13 cells, presumably of the same particular class and distributed in an organized fashion throughout the surface of the tectum, terminate in separate regions within one subdivision. This spatial organization has significant consequences for the understanding of the physiological and functional properties of the tectofugal pathway in birds. J. Comp. Neurol. 458:361–380, 2003. © 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.