January 21, 2016

Sensory function: Thalamus enhances and stores sensory information

The neurons in the cortex are dyed red and the axons in the higher-order thalamus are
shown in green. (Picture: R. Mease, M. Metz, A. Groh / Cell Reports, 10.1016/j.celrep.2015.12.026,
modified, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

(January 21, 2016)  Every day, we constantly absorb information through our sensory organs, which the brain then needs to process correctly. The information initially reaches the main relay center, the thalamus, and then travels to the cerebral cortex. The neurons in the so-called higher-order thalamus form the connecting lines between both areas of the brain. Prior to this, their role in sensory processing was unknown. Scientists at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have now shown for the first time in an animal model that they enhance and temporarily store sensory information.

The thalamus is essentially the size of two walnuts and is located in the middle of the brain. All sensory perceptions converge here first. As the main relay center, it therefore needs to reconcile the flood of incoming information and the brain's limited computing power. But how does the thalamus do this? How does it signal to the cortex within milliseconds which information is important and needs to be evaluated there and brought to the conscious mind?

Animal model for researching sensory stimuli

The processes in the neurons at the transition point between the thalamus and the cortex are particularly interesting for neuroscientists like Dr. Alexander Groh at the Institute of Neuroscience and the Department of Neurosurgery at TUM. “Very little is still known about the role and the effects of this region, described as the higher-order thalamus. It is, however, extremely important, as the neurons there develop contacts with numerous areas in the cortex and potentially affect these,” explains Alexander Groh, who headed up the study.

journal reference (Open Access) >>