Spatial orientation requires the execution of lateralized movements and a change in the animal’s heading in response to multiple sensory modalities. While much research has focused on the circuits for sensory integration, chiefly to the midbrain superior colliculus (SC), the downstream cells and circuits that engage adequate motor actions have remained elusive. Furthermore, the mechanisms supporting trajectory changes are still speculative.
Here, using transneuronal viral tracings in mice, we show that brainstem V2a neurons, a genetically defined subtype of glutamatergic neurons of the reticular formation, receive putative synaptic inputs from the contralateral SC. This makes them a candidate relay of lateralized orienting commands. We next show that unilateral optogenetic activations of brainstem V2a neurons in vivo evoked ipsilateral orienting-like responses of the head and the nose tip on stationary mice. When animals are walking, similar stimulations impose a transient locomotor arrest followed by a change of trajectory. Third, we reveal that these distinct motor actions are controlled by dedicated V2a subsets each projecting to a specific spinal cord segment, with at least (1) a lumbar-projecting subset whose unilateral activation specifically controls locomotor speed but neither impacts trajectory nor evokes orienting movements, and (2) a cervical-projecting subset dedicated to head orientation, but not to locomotor speed. Activating the latter subset suffices to steer the animals’ directional heading, placing the head orientation as the prime driver of locomotor trajectory. V2a neurons and their modular organization may therefore underlie the orchestration of multiple motor actions during multi-faceted orienting behaviors.