The thalamic complex is composed of the perithalamus (or prethalamus, previously also known as ventral thalamus), the zona limitans intrathalamica (ZLI) and the thalamus (dorsal thalamus).
The ZLI is a transverse boundary located between the perithalamus and the functional distinct thalamus. Besides its morphological characteristics, it bears the hallmarks of a signalling centre. Fate mapping experiments in chicks have shown that the ZLI is cell lineage restricted at its boundaries and therefore can be termed a true developmental compartment in the forebrain.
Besides morphological characteristics, the ZLI is the only structure in the alar plate of the neural tube that expresses signaling molecules.
In mice, the function of signaling at the ZLI has not been addressed directly due to a complete absence of the diencephalon in Shh mutants.
Studies in chicks have shown that Shh is both necessary and sufficient for thalamic gene induction.
In zebrafish, it was shown that the expression of two Shh genes, shh-a and shh-b (formerly described as twhh) mark the ZLI territory, and that Shh signaling is sufficient for the molecular differentiation of both the prethalamus and the thalamus but is not required for their maintenance and Shh signaling from the ZLI/alar plate is sufficient for the maturation of prethalamic and thalamic territory while ventral Shh signals are dispensable.
In humans, a common genetic variation in the promotor region of the serotonin transporter (the SERT-long and -short allele: 5-HTTLPR) has been shown to affect the development of several regions of the thalamus in adults.
People who inherit two short alleles (SERT-ss) have more neurons and a larger volume in the pulvinar and possibly the limbic regions of the thalamus. Enlargement of the thalamus provides an anatomical basis for why people who inherit two SERT-ss alleles are more vulnerable to major depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and suicide.
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