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PLoS One. 2007 Sep 5;2(9):e848.

Parallel driving and modulatory pathways link the prefrontal cortex and thalamus.

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Department of Health Sciences, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts, United States of America.


Pathways linking the thalamus and cortex mediate our daily shifts from states of attention to quiet rest, or sleep, yet little is known about their architecture in high-order neural systems associated with cognition, emotion and action. We provide novel evidence for neurochemical and synaptic specificity of two complementary circuits linking one such system, the prefrontal cortex with the ventral anterior thalamic nucleus in primates. One circuit originated from the neurochemical group of parvalbumin-positive thalamic neurons and projected focally through large terminals to the middle cortical layers, resembling 'drivers' in sensory pathways. Parvalbumin thalamic neurons, in turn, were innervated by small 'modulatory' type cortical terminals, forming asymmetric (presumed excitatory) synapses at thalamic sites enriched with the specialized metabotropic glutamate receptors. A second circuit had a complementary organization: it originated from the neurochemical group of calbindin-positive thalamic neurons and terminated through small 'modulatory' terminals over long distances in the superficial prefrontal layers. Calbindin thalamic neurons, in turn, were innervated by prefrontal axons through small and large terminals that formed asymmetric synapses preferentially at sites with ionotropic glutamate receptors, consistent with a driving pathway. The largely parallel thalamo-cortical pathways terminated among distinct and laminar-specific neurochemical classes of inhibitory neurons that differ markedly in inhibitory control. The balance of activation of these parallel circuits that link a high-order association cortex with the thalamus may allow shifts to different states of consciousness, in processes that are disrupted in psychiatric diseases.

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