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Prog Brain Res. 2002;136:333-57.

Thalamic organization and function after Cajal.

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  • Center for Neuroscience, University of California, Davis, 1544 Newton Court, Davis, CA 95616, USA. egjones@ucdavis.edu


Cajal's many contributions to understanding the thalamus have been hidden by his body of work on the cerebral cortex. He delineated many thalamic nuclei in rodents, defined afferent fibers, thalamocortical relay neurons and interneurons, was first to demonstrate thalamocortical fibers and their terminations in the cortex, and recognized the feed-back provided by corticothalamic fibers. This presentation outlines modern methods for identifying classes of thalamic neurons, their chemical characteristics, synaptology and differential connections, and describes the intrinsic circuitry of the thalamus, showing how interactions between GABAergic cells of the reticular nucleus and glutamatergic relay cells underlie rhythmic activities of neurons in the thalamo-cortico-thalamic network, activities associated with changes in the conscious state, and which are generated and maintained by the corticothalamic projection. Corticothalamic fibers interact with reticular nucleus cells and relay cells through NMDA, AMPA and metabotropic receptors while interactions between reticular nucleus cells and relay cells are mediated by GABAA and GABAB receptors. Differing strengths of synaptic input to the two cell types, from which oscillatory behavior commences, depend upon differential expression at individual synapses of specific AMPA receptor subunits which modulate excitatory postsynaptic conductances. Two classes of relay cells can be distinguished by differential staining for calbindin and parvalbumin. The first forms a matrix in the thalamus, unconstrained by nuclear borders; the second is concentrated in certain nuclei in which it forms the topographically organized core. In projecting diffusely to the cortex, calbindin cells provide a substrate for binding together activities of multiple cortical areas that receive focused input from single thalamic nuclei. This, and the presence of specific and diffuse corticothalamic projections may serve to promote coherent activity of large populations of cortical and thalamic neurons in perception, attention and conscious awareness.

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