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Curr Biol. 2014 May 5;24(9):993-9. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.03.024. Epub 2014 Apr 17.

Thalamic control of human attention driven by memory and learning.

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Division of Brain Sciences, Department of Medicine, Imperial College London, Charing Cross Campus, St. Dunstan's Road, London W6 8RP, UK.
Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and Department of Psychology & Neuroscience, Duke University, Levine Science Research Building, Box 90999, 450 Research Drive, Durham, NC 27708, USA.
Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3UD, UK.
Division of Brain Sciences, Department of Medicine, Imperial College London, Charing Cross Campus, St. Dunstan's Road, London W6 8RP, UK. Electronic address:


The role of the thalamus in high-level cognition-attention, working memory (WM), rule-based learning, and decision making-remains poorly understood, especially in comparison to that of cortical frontoparietal networks [1-3]. Studies of visual thalamus have revealed important roles for pulvinar and lateral geniculate nucleus in visuospatial perception and attention [4-10] and for mediodorsal thalamus in oculomotor control [11]. Ventrolateral thalamus contains subdivisions devoted to action control as part of a circuit involving the basal ganglia [12, 13] and motor, premotor, and prefrontal cortices [14], whereas anterior thalamus forms a memory network in connection with the hippocampus [15]. This connectivity profile suggests that ventrolateral and anterior thalamus may represent a nexus between mnemonic and control functions, such as action or attentional selection. Here, we characterize the role of thalamus in the interplay between memory and visual attention. We show that ventrolateral lesions impair the influence of WM representations on attentional deployment. A subsequent fMRI study in healthy volunteers demonstrates involvement of ventrolateral and, notably, anterior thalamus in biasing attention through WM contents. To further characterize the memory types used by the thalamus to bias attention, we performed a second fMRI study that involved learning of stimulus-stimulus associations and their retrieval from long-term memory to optimize attention in search. Responses in ventrolateral and anterior thalamic nuclei tracked learning of the predictiveness of these abstract associations and their use in directing attention. These findings demonstrate a key role for human thalamus in higher-level cognition, notably, in mnemonic biasing of attention.

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