Research Article

Dynamic salience processing in paraventricular thalamus gates associative learning

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Science  26 Oct 2018:
Vol. 362, Issue 6413, pp. 423-429
DOI: 10.1126/science.aat0481

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A close view of the paraventricular thalamus

The paraventricular thalamus is a relay station connecting brainstem and hypothalamic signals that represent internal states with the limbic forebrain that performs associative functions in emotional contexts. Zhu et al. found that paraventricular thalamic neurons represent multiple salient features of sensory stimuli, including reward, aversiveness, novelty, and surprise. The nucleus thus provides context-dependent salience encoding. The thalamus gates sensory information and contributes to the sleep-wake cycle through its interactions with the cerebral cortex. Ren et al. recorded from neurons in the paraventricular thalamus and observed that both population and single-neuron activity were tightly coupled with wakefulness.

Science, this issue p. 423, p. 429

Abstract

The salience of behaviorally relevant stimuli is dynamic and influenced by internal state and external environment. Monitoring such changes is critical for effective learning and flexible behavior, but the neuronal substrate for tracking the dynamics of stimulus salience is obscure. We found that neurons in the paraventricular thalamus (PVT) are robustly activated by a variety of behaviorally relevant events, including novel (“unfamiliar”) stimuli, reinforcing stimuli and their predicting cues, as well as omission of the expected reward. PVT responses are scaled with stimulus intensity and modulated by changes in homeostatic state or behavioral context. Inhibition of the PVT responses suppresses appetitive or aversive associative learning and reward extinction. Our findings demonstrate that the PVT gates associative learning by providing a dynamic representation of stimulus salience.

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