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Prog Brain Res. 2005;149:107-26.

Thalamic relays and cortical functioning.

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Department of Neurobiology, Pharmacology & Physiology, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637, USA.


Studies on the visual thalamic relays, the lateral geniculate nucleus and pulvinar, provide three key properties that have dramatically changed the view that the thalamus serves as a simple relay to get information from subcortical sites to cortex. First, the retinal input, although a small minority (7%) in terms of numbers of synapses onto geniculate relay cells, dominates receptive field properties of these relay cells and strongly drives them; 93% of input thus is nonretinal and modulates the relay in dynamic and important ways related to behavioral state, including attention. We call the retinal input the driver input and the nonretinal, modulator input, and their unique morphological and functional differences allow us to recognize driver and modulator input to many other thalamic relays. Second, much of the modulation is related to control of a voltage-gated, low threshold Ca(2+) conductance that determines response properties of relay cells -burst or tonic - and this, among other things, affects the salience of information relayed. Third, the lateral geniculate nucleus and pulvinar (a massive but generally mysterious and ignored thalamic relay), are examples of two different types of relay: the LGN is a first order relay, transmitting information from a subcortical driver source (retina), while the pulvinar is mostly a higher order relay, transmitting information from a driver source emanating from layer 5 of one cortical area to another area. Higher order relays seem especially important to general corticocortical communication, and this view challenges the conventional dogma that such communication is based on direct corticocortical connections. In this sense, any new information reaching a cortical area, whether from a subcortical source or another cortical area, benefits from a thalamic relay. Other examples of first and higher order relays also exist, and generally higher order relays represent the majority of thalamus. A final property of interest emphasized in chapter 17 by Guillery (2005) is that most or all driver inputs to thalamus, whether from a subcortical source or from layer 5 of cortex, are axons that branch, with the extrathalamic branch innervating a motor or premotor region in the brainstem, or in some cases, spinal cord. This suggests that actual information relayed by thalamus to cortex is actually a copy of motor instructions (Guillery, 2005). Overall, these features of thalamic relays indicate that the thalamus not only provides a behaviorally relevant, dynamic control over the nature of information relayed, it also plays a key role in basic corticocortical communication.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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