Thalamus & Related Systems

The role of the thalamus in cortical function: not just a simple relay

S. Murray Sherman a1c1
a1 Dept of Neurobiology, The University of Chicago, Chicago, USA

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Recent work on the visual thalamic relays provides two key properties reviewed here. First, [similar]95% of input to lateral geniculate relay cells is non-retinal and dynamically modulates the relay based on behavioral state, including attention. Part of this relates to control of a voltage-gated, low-threshold Ca2+ conductance that controls the relay cell response mode (tonic or burst). Second, the lateral geniculate nucleus and pulvinar are examples of two relay types: the former is a first order relay, transmitting subcortical (retinal) information, while the latter is mostly a higher order relay, transmitting information from layer 5 of one cortical area to another. Higher order relays seem to be important to corticocortical communication, which challenges the dogma that such communication is based on direct cortico–cortical connections. Other examples of first order and higher order relays also exist. Interesting differences in functional circuitry between first and higher order thalamic relays are beginning to accumulate, which indicate extramodulatory functions for higher order relays. Thus, the thalamus provides a behaviorally relevant, dynamic control over the nature of information relayed, and also plays a key role in basic cortico–cortical communication.

(Published Online February 19 2007)

Key Words: Pulvinar; lateral geniculate nucleus; thalamocortical; corticothalamic; burst and tonic firing; first order thalamic nuclei; higher order thalamic nuclei.

c1 Correspondence should be adressed to: S.M. Sherman Dept of Neurobiology, Pharmacology and Physiology, The University of Chicago, 947 E. 58th Street, MC 0926, 316 Abbott Chicago, IL 60637, USA tel: +1 773 834 2900, fax: +1 773 702 3774, email: