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Keywords:

  • mediodorsal thalamus;
  • centromedian thalamus;
  • cortical networks;
  • subcortical network;
  • diffusion tensor imaging (DTI);
  • quantitative tractography;
  • structural connectivity;
  • human neuroanatomy;
  • deep brain stimulation

Abstract

Distinct thalamic nuclei, like the mediodorsal (MD) nucleus and the centromedian/parafascicular complex (CM/Pf), are embedded in different basal ganglia—thalamocortical loops, which were shown to integrate cognitive and emotional aspects of human behavior. Despite well described connections on a microscopic scale, derived from tracing studies in animals, little is known about the intrinsic anatomical connections of these nuclei in humans. This lack of knowledge limits not only interpretation of functional imaging studies but also estimation of direct effects of deep brain stimulation which treats diseases as different as epilepsy or major depression. Therefore, non-invasive diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) studies are key to analyzing connectivity patterns and elaborate approaches to close this gap. For our study, we explored the structural connectivity of the MD thalamic nuclei and the CM/Pf complex towards five cortical and six subcortical regions by using a preferential fiber calculation. We found both thalamic nuclei to be preferentially associated to distinct networks: whereas the MD is preferentially connected to prefrontal and limbic cortical regions, the CM is linked to subcortical regions. The anterior insula was the only cortical region associated with the subcortical network of the CM and the cortical network of the MD comprised one subcortical hub, the caudate nucleus, suggesting an integrative role of these two regions. Adding to predescribed anatomical tract tracing connectivities in animal studies, our finding lends support to the existence of similar basal ganglia-thalamocortical circuits in humans and we could show a robust distinction of preferential connectivity for both thalamic nuclei. Hum Brain Mapp, 2012. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.