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The anterior insular cortex (aIC) plays a critical role in cognitive and motivational control of behavior, but the underlying neural mechanism remains elusive. Here, we show that aIC neurons expressing Fezf2 (aIC), which are the pyramidal tract neurons, signal motivational vigor and invigorate need-seeking behavior through projections to the brainstem nucleus tractus solitarii (NTS). aIC neurons and their postsynaptic NTS neurons acquire anticipatory activity through learning, which encodes the perceived value and the vigor of actions to pursue homeostatic needs. Correspondingly, aIC → NTS circuit activity controls vigor, effort, and striatal dopamine release but only if the action is learned and the outcome is needed. Notably, aIC neurons do not represent taste or valence. Moreover, aIC → NTS activity neither drives reinforcement nor influences total consumption. These results pinpoint specific functions of aIC → NTS circuit for selectively controlling motivational vigor and suggest that motivation is subserved, in part, by aIC's top-down regulation of dopamine signaling.