The Pulvinar (PUL) and Mediodorsal (MD) nuclei are higher order thalamic structures known to play critical roles in various cognitive domains. However, the precise mechanisms how thalamus supports cognition are unknown, with theories suggesting roles in gating or facilitating functional connectivity across their cortical targets. Importantly, recent evidence from schizophrenia patients suggests that these higher order thalamic-cortical interactions are perturbed and may even be causative to disease etiology.

In our Conte Center, we have assembled a group of investigators who will utilize behavior, electrophysiology, and imaging across different cognitive domains (spatial attention, decision making) and brain models (neurotypical humans, schizophrenia patients, non-human primates, tree shrews) to

  1. Identify cognitive functional organization principles of higher-order thalamic nuclei in interacting with cortex;
  2. Translate thalamic functionality from animal models to the healthy and diseased human brain; and
  3. Develop a biologically plausible model for the human higher-order thalamus.

The Center is divided into five Scientific Projects and supported by three Cores.

Project 1

Pulvinar cellular and network dynamics in cognitive control of sensory processes.

This project will combine multielectrode recordings and optogenetics to establish the general rules and dynamics of communication between early visual cortical areas and pulvinar during cognitive control of sensory processes.

W. Martin Usrey, Ph.D.
Lead Investigator – Project 1

Project 2

Functions and thalamocortical interactions of macaque higher order thalamus in cognitive control.

This project will use simultaneous multielectrode recordings to characterize and compare functions of MD and PUL, in relation to interconnected areas in prefrontal and posterior parietal cortex during cognitive control tasks.

Sabine Kastner, MD, PhD
Center Director, Lead Investigator – Project 2, Core A

Project 3

Mechanistic dissection of cognitive thalamocortical engagement in attention and hierarchical reasoning.

This project will characterize and compare functions of the MD and PUL, nucleus with their cortical targets, the prefrontal and striate-extrastriate cortex, respectively. The project will utilize Tupaia to combine causal manipulation and microcircuit dissection with high-level cognition.

Michael M. Halassa, MD, PhD
Lead Investigator – Project 3

Project 4

Thalamocortical cognitive networks in the healthy human brain.

This project will use neuroimaging to map the functional organization of higher order thalamus and interconnected cortical networks to characterize and compare task-based functions. The focus will be both on bridging findings cross-species and on revealing human-unique aspects of thalamocortical networks in relation to cognition.

Michael J. Arcaro, PhD
Lead Co-Investigator - Project 4
Anne Collins, Ph.D.
Lead Co-Investigator - Project 4

Project 5

Functional and behavioral dissection of higher order thalamocortical circuits in schizophrenia.

This project will leverage seminal discoveries by Center PIs Arcaro, Halassa and Kastner elucidating pulvino-cortical and PFC-MD circuits in visual attention and executive function, respectively, to inform thalamocortical mechanisms of cognitive impairment in schizophrenia.

Neil Woodward, Ph.D.
Lead Investigator – Project 5