The habenula is a diencephalic brain region that has attracted growing interest over the past decade because of its role in reward‐related behaviours and potential involvement in neuropsychiatric disorders in which reward processes are perturbed. The habenula exerts remarkable control over major dopaminergic and serotonergic neurotransmitter systems and has been implicated in a plethora of complex behavioural processes. It has been hypothesised that the habenula integrates information regarding rewarding and aversive stimuli and participates in the selection of behavioural strategies to maximise rewarding outcomes. Habenular activity is highly responsive to drugs of abuse and alterations in its activity may contribute to the negative emotional states during periods of drug abstinence that may precipitate the emergence of compulsive drug seeking behaviours. Thus, the habenula appears today as a hot topic in the neuroscience field in regard to its proper role such as to its potential implication in several pathologies like addiction.

Key Concepts

  • The habenula is a well‐conserved structure, divided in a medial and a lateral part, controlling the monoaminergic centres of the brain.
  • The medial and the lateral habenula, even if they belong to a same complex (the habenular complex or habenula), present important differences in term of connectivity and neurochemical markers.
  • The habenula location allows it to convey information from the telencephalon to the midbrain regions, regarding the rewarding properties such as the emotional aspect of a situation.
  • It is now well described that drug of abuse, such as nicotine and cocaine, induce important alterations of the medial and lateral habenula activity respectively.
  • Drug‐induced alteration of the habenular nuclei may lead to severe negative states and participate to withdrawal symptoms, such as depression.

Keywords: habenular complex; reward; aversion; substance use disorders; lateral habenula; medial habenula; reward‐related behaviors; monoamines; addiction

Figure 1. (a) The main inputs (green) of the habenular complex, passing through the stria medullairs (sm), are the medial part of prefrontal cortex (PFCm), the entopeduncular nucleus (EPN), septum (Sep), lateral hypothalamus (LH) and suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). This complex sends axons, via the fasciculus retroflexus (fr), to different midbrain areas (orange) such as the rostromedial tegmentum (RMTg), ventral tegmental area (VTA), substantia nigra (SN), the raphe and the interpeduncular nucleus (IPN). (b) The lateral (LHb) and medial (MHb) habenula subnuclei show a very different pattern of connections; almost all the MHb inputs arise in the septum [septofimbrial nucleus, medial septum and triangular septal nucleus (TSN)] and the nucleus of diagonal band (NDB), and MHb neurons project almost exclusively to the IPN via the fr. Inputs to the LHb arise in the PFCm, the EPN, LH and SCN but also in the lateral preoptic area (LPOA) and the ventral pallidum (VP). Then, the major LHb outputs, via the FR, are the monoaminergic centres of the midbrain such as the VTA, the SN and the raphe nuclei but also the GABAergic neurons of the RMTg. Reproduced with permission from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0149763418301209?via%3Dihub. © Elsevier.


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Mathis, Victor, and Kenny, Paul J(Oct 2018) Habenula. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0028063]