The thalamus has multiple functions. It is generally believed to act as a relay between a variety of subcortical areas and the cerebral cortex. In particular, every sensory system (with the exception of the olfactory system) includes a thalamic nucleus that receives sensory signals and sends them to the associated primary cortical area.
For the visual system, for example, inputs from the retina are sent to the lateral geniculate nucleus of the thalamus, which in turn projects to the primary visual cortex (area V1) in the occipital lobe.
The thalamus is believed to both process sensory information as well as relaying it—each of the primary sensory relay areas receives strong "back projections" from the cerebral cortex.
Similarly the medial geniculate nucleus acts as a key auditory relay between the inferior colliculus of the midbrain and the primary auditory cortex, and the ventral posterior nucleus is a key somatosensory relay, which sends touch and proprioceptive information to the primary somatosensory cortex.
The thalamus also plays an important role in regulating states of sleep and wakefulness. Thalamic nuclei have strong reciprocal connections with the cerebral cortex, forming thalamo-cortico-thalamic circuits that are believed to be involved with consciousness.
The thalamus plays a major role in regulating arousal, the level of awareness, and activity. Damage to the thalamus can lead to permanent coma.
Many different functions are linked to various regions of the thalamus. This is the case for many of the sensory systems (except for the olfactory system), such as the auditory, somatic, visceral, gustatory and visual systems where localized lesions provoke specific sensory deficits.
A major role of the thalamus is devoted to "motor" systems. This has been and continues to be a subject of interest for investigators. VIm, the relay of cerebellar afferences, is the target of stereotactians particularly for the improvement of tremor.
The role of the thalamus in the more anterior pallidal and nigral territories in the basal ganglia system disturbances is recognized but still poorly understood.
The contribution of the thalamus to vestibular or to tectal functions is almost ignored. The thalamus has been thought of as a "relay" that simply forwards signals to the cerebral cortex. Newer research suggests that thalamic function is more selective.
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