•Locomotion induces changes in cortical state and visual processing in mice
•Optogenetic stimulation of mesencephalic locomotor region (MLR) initiates locomotion
•Subthreshold stimulation of MLR induces cortical changes in the absence of locomotion
•The MLR projection to basal forebrain provides a circuit to link locomotion to cortex
Sensory processing is dependent upon behavioral state. In mice, locomotion is accompanied by changes in cortical state and enhanced visual responses. Although recent studies have begun to elucidate intrinsic cortical mechanisms underlying this effect, the neural circuits that initially couple locomotion to cortical processing are unknown. The mesencephalic locomotor region (MLR) has been shown to be capable of initiating running and is associated with the ascending reticular activating system. Here, we find that optogenetic stimulation of the MLR in awake, head-fixed mice can induce both locomotion and increases in the gain of cortical responses. MLR stimulation below the threshold for overt movement similarly changed cortical processing, revealing that MLR’s effects on cortex are dissociable from locomotion. Likewise, stimulation of MLR projections to the basal forebrain also enhanced cortical responses, suggesting a pathway linking the MLR to cortex. These studies demonstrate that the MLR regulates cortical state in parallel with locomotion.