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Deep Cortical Layers Are Activated Directly by Thalamus

Science  28 Jun 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6140, pp. 1591-1594
DOI: 10.1126/science.1236425

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A Direct Line in the Brain

For decades, neuroscientists have assumed that there is a “canonical microcircuit” in the neo cortex, in which information is transformed as excitation spreads serially along connections from thalamus, to cortical layer 4, then to layers 2/3, to layers 5/6, and finally to other brain regions. Each cortical layer is thought to transform sensory signals to extract behaviorally relevant information. Now, Constantinople and Bruno (p. 1591) challenge this dogma. In vivo whole-cell recordings revealed that sensory stimuli activate neurons in deep cortical layers simultaneously to those in layer 4 and that a large number of thalamic neurons converge onto deep pyramidal neurons, possibly allowing sensory information to completely bypass upper layers. Temporary blockade of layer 4 revealed that synaptic input to deep cortical layers derived entirely from the thalamus and not at all from upper cortical layers. This thalamically derived synaptic input reliably drove pyramidal neurons in layer 5 to discharge action potentials in the living animal. These deep layer neurons project to numerous higher-order brain regions and could directly mediate behavior.

Abstract

The thalamocortical (TC) projection to layer 4 (L4) is thought to be the main route by which sensory organs communicate with cortex. Sensory information is believed to then propagate through the cortical column along the L4→L2/3→L5/6 pathway. Here, we show that sensory-evoked responses of L5/6 neurons in rats derive instead from direct TC synapses. Many L5/6 neurons exhibited sensory-evoked postsynaptic potentials with the same latencies as L4. Paired in vivo recordings from L5/6 neurons and thalamic neurons revealed substantial convergence of direct TC synapses onto diverse types of infragranular neurons, particularly in L5B. Pharmacological inactivation of L4 had no effect on sensory-evoked synaptic input to L5/6 neurons. L4 is thus not an obligatory distribution hub for cortical activity, and thalamus activates two separate, independent “strata” of cortex in parallel.

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