This study tests the hypothesis that the anterior thalamic nuclei play a significant role in spatial learning and memory. Adult, male Sprague-Dawley rats with bilateral ibotenic acid lesions of the anterior thalamus were tested for 5 days in a repeated acquisition water maze task. Compared with Controls, rats with nearly complete lesions of both anterodorsal (AD) and anteroventral (AV) thalamic nuclei (AD/AV) were only mildly impaired in their spatial learning and memory. Larger lesions that extended into the anteromedial (AM) thalamic nucleus (AD/AV+) caused a more severe impairment and complete lesions of all three anterior nuclei (AD/AV/AM) resulted in even greater impairment that extended to all aspects of the task. In probe trials, only the Control animals had a preference for the correct quadrant. Approximately one-half of the rats were tested for a second week to determine if the impaired groups would benefit from further training. AD/AV/AM rats showed little improvement, but the other groups all improved significantly in all aspects of the task except the probe trial. Together, these data indicate that the anterior thalamic nuclei contribute to spatial learning and memory, but neither AV nor AD independently plays a dominant role. © 2002 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.