First measurements made of key brain links

December 4, 2012
Scott Cruikshank
Until now, brain scientists have been almost completely in the dark about how most of the nonspecific thalamus interacts with the prefrontal cortex, a relationship believed to be key in such fundamental functions as maintaining consciousness and mental arousal. Brown University researchers performed a set of experiments, described in theJournal of Neuroscience, to explore and measure those circuits for the first time.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Inside the brains of mice and men alike, a relatively big football-shaped region called the thalamus acts like a switchboard, providing the prefrontal cortex, the part that does abstract thinking and decision-making, with most of its information. The thalamus’s responsibility even includes helping the prefrontal cortex to maintain consciousness and arousal.

Essential as this “thalamocortical” partnership is, neuroscientists have understood very little about the connections coming from a matrix of cells in the so-called “nonspecific thalamus,” where information other than from the senses is relayed. In a new paper published Dec. 5, 2012, in the Journal of Neuroscience, Brown University researchers report the first direct measurements in mice of cause-and-effect responses between the key thalamus cells in that matrix and those in the prefrontal cortex.