Orexin (hypocretin) and melanin-concentrating hormone (MCH) neurons are unique to the lateral hypothalamic (LH) region, but project throughout the brain. These cell groups have been implicated in a variety of functions, including reward learning, responses to stimulants, and the modulation of attention, arousal and the sleep/wakefulness cycle. Here, we examined roles for LH in two aspects of attention in associative learning shown previously to depend on intact function in major targets of orexin and MCH neurons. In experiments 1 and 2, unilateral orexin-saporin lesions of LH impaired the acquisition of conditioned orienting responses (ORs) and bilaterally suppressed FOS expression in the amygdala central nucleus (CeA) normally observed in response to food cues that provoke conditioned ORs. Those cues also induced greater FOS expression than control cues in LH orexin neurons, but not in MCH neurons. In experiment 3, unilateral orexin-saporin lesions of LH eliminated the cue associability enhancements normally produced by the surprising omission of an expected event. The magnitude of that impairment was positively correlated with the amount of LH damage and with the loss of orexin neurons in particular, but not with the loss of MCH neurons. We suggest that the effects of the LH orexin-saporin lesions were mediated by their effect on information processing in the CeA, known to be critical to both behavioral phenomena examined here. The results imply close relations between LH motivational amplification functions and attention, and may inform our understanding of disorders in which motivational and attentional impairments co-occur.
Rats with unilateral orexin-saporin lesions of lateral hypothalamus failed to acquire conditioned orienting responses or show surprise-induced enhancement of cue associability. These unilateral lesions also produced bilateral impairments in FOS expression in amygdala central nucleus, a region critical to both of these attentional phenomena. Other associative learning phenomena that do not require modulation of attentional processing were unaffected.