• nucleus isthmi;
  • optic tectum;
  • stimulus selection;
  • GABAergic;
  • hodological homology;
  • parcellation


The isthmic complex is part of a visual midbrain circuit thought to be involved in stimulus selection and spatial attention. In birds, this circuit is composed of the nuclei isthmi pars magnocellularis (Imc), pars parvocellularis (Ipc), and pars semilunaris (SLu), all of them reciprocally connected to the ipsilateral optic tectum (TeO). The Imc conveys heterotopic inhibition to the TeO, Ipc, and SLu via widespread γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA)ergic axons that allow global competitive interactions among simultaneous sensory inputs. Anatomical studies in the chick have described a cytoarchitectonically uniform Imc nucleus containing two intermingled cell types: one projecting to the Ipc and SLu and the other to the TeO. Here we report that in passerine species, the Imc is segregated into an internal division displaying larger, sparsely distributed cells, and an external division displaying smaller, more densely packed cells. In vivo and in vitro injections of neural tracers in the TeO and the Ipc of the zebra finch demonstrated that neurons from the external and internal subdivisions project to the Ipc and the TeO, respectively, indicating that each Imc subdivision contains one of the two cell types hodologically defined in the chick. In an extensive survey across avian orders, we found that, in addition to passerines, only species of Piciformes and Rallidae exhibited a segregated Imc, whereas all other groups exhibited a uniform Imc. These results offer a comparative basis to investigate the functional role played by each Imc neural type in the competitive interactions mediated by this nucleus. J. Comp. Neurol. 521:1727–1742, 2013. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.