Though most experimental evidence indicates that the corticothalamic (CT) pathway would exert a direct excitatory action on thalamic relay neurons, the electrophysiological features of this excitation have never been clearly described. A methodological problem in previous electrophysiological studies was that direct corticofugal effects on relay cells could not be separated from those mediated by collateral activation of reticular thalamic neurons. In the present study, the reticular complex was lesioned by kainic acid and the CT response of relay neurons of the ventral lateral nucleus was recorded intracellularly in cats under pentobarbital or urethane anaesthesia.
Following reticular thalamic lesions, a prominent depolarization was triggered in thalamic relay cells by stimulation of the CT pathway. This depolarization strongly drove spike discharges, and its amplitude augmented when the stimulation rate exceeded 2 Hz. Tetanizing the CT input with short trains (100–200 Hz for 200–300 ms) produced a similar augmentation to test volleys for 15–30 s after the tetanos. The CT excitation and its frequency-dependent augmentation were depressed by ketamine injection or by local application of N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) antagonists. The augmenting phenomenon appeared strictly homosynaptic. For instance, it did not appear during repetitive stimulation of the cerebellar input, nor did the CT input potentiate subthreshold synaptic potentials of cerebellar origin during a conditioning procedure. Conversely, the cerebellar excitation was depressed when it occurred during the CT depolarization.
It is concluded that the direct synaptic responses induced by CT fibres in relay neurons are mediated at least partly by the activation of NMDA receptors. Moreover, the marked non-linear additivity of cerebellar and CT synaptic potentials raises questions concerning the presumed improvement of thalamic transmission of peripheral informations ensured by the CT input. Instead, both inputs could compete for control of the firing of thalamic neurons. The numerical importance of CT fibres and the strong augmenting mechanism operating at synaptic sites in the thalamus suggest that the role of the thalamus is not only to transfer peripheral informations toward the cortex, but also and mainly to feed back to the cortex a modified copy of its own neuronal constructs.