The anatomy of the human medial forebrain bundle: Ventral tegmental area connections to reward-associated subcortical and frontal lobe regions

Volker Arnd Coenen, Lena Valerie Schumacher, Christoph Kaller, Thomas Eduard Schlaepfer, Peter Christoph Reinacher, Karl Egger, Horst Urbach, Marco Reisert

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Scopus citations


Introduction: Despite their importance in reward, motivation, and learning there is only sparse anatomical knowledge about the human medial forebrain bundle (MFB) and the connectivity of the ventral tegmental area (VTA). A thorough anatomical and microstructural description of the reward related PFC/OFC regions and their connection to the VTA - the superolateral branch of the MFB (slMFB) - is however mandatory to enable an interpretation of distinct therapeutic effects from different interventional treatment modalities in neuropsychiatric disorders (DBS, TMS etc.). This work aims at a normative description of the human MFB (and more detailed the slMFB) anatomy with respect to distant prefrontal connections and microstructural features. Methods and material: Healthy subjects (n = 55; mean age ± SD, 40 ± 10 years; 32 females) underwent high resolution anatomical magnetic resonance imaging including diffusion tensor imaging. Connectivity of the VTA and the resulting slMFB were investigated on the group level using a global tractography approach. The Desikan/Killiany parceling (8 segments) of the prefrontal cortex was used to describe sub-segments of the MFB. A qualitative overlap with Brodmann areas was additionally described. Additionally, a pure visual analysis was performed comparing local and global tracking approaches for their ability to fully visualize the slMFB. Results: The MFB could be robustly described both in the present sample as well as in additional control analyses in data from the human connectome project. Most VTA- connections reached the superior frontal gyrus, the middel frontal gyrus and the lateral orbitofrontal region corresponding to Brodmann areas 10, 9, 8, 11, and 11m. The projections to these regions comprised 97% (right) and 98% (left) of the total relative fiber counts of the slMFB. Discussion: The anatomical description of the human MFB shows far reaching connectivity of VTA to reward-related subcortical and cortical prefrontal regions - but not to emotion-related regions on the medial cortical surface - realized via the superolateral branch of the MFB. Local tractography approaches appear to be inferior in showing these far-reaching projections. Since these local approaches are typically used for surgical targeting of DBS procedures, the here established detailed map might - as a normative template - guide future efforts to target deep brain stimulation of the slMFB in depression and other disorders related to dysfunction of reward and reward-associated learning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)770-783
Number of pages14
JournalNeuroImage: Clinical
StatePublished - 2018


  • Brain
  • Deep brain stimulation
  • Depression
  • Human
  • Medial forebrain bundle
  • Normal anatomy
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder
  • TMS

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Radiology Nuclear Medicine and imaging
  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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