Cognitive functions and neurodevelopmental disorders involving the prefrontal cortex and mediodorsal thalamus
Ouhaz Z., Fleming H., Mitchell AS.
© 2018 Ouhaz, Fleming and Mitchell. The mediodorsal nucleus of the thalamus (MD) has been implicated in executive functions (such as planning, cognitive control, working memory, and decision-making) because of its significant interconnectivity with the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Yet, whilst the roles of the PFC have been extensively studied, how the MD contributes to these cognitive functions remains relatively unclear. Recently, causal evidence in monkeys has demonstrated that in everyday tasks involving rapid updating (e.g., while learning something new, making decisions, or planning the next move), the MD and frontal cortex are working in close partnership. Furthermore, researchers studying the MD in rodents have been able to probe the underlying mechanisms of this relationship to give greater insights into how the frontal cortex and MD might interact during the performance of these essential tasks. This review summarizes the circuitry and known neuromodulators of the MD, and considers the most recent behavioral, cognitive, and neurophysiological studies conducted in monkeys and rodents; in total, this evidence demonstrates that MD makes a critical contribution to cognitive functions. We propose that communication occurs between the MD and the frontal cortex in an ongoing, fluid manner during rapid cognitive operations, via the means of efference copies of messages passed through transthalamic routes; the conductance of these messages may be modulated by other brain structures interconnected to the MD. This is similar to the way in which other thalamic structures have been suggested to carry out forward modeling associated with rapid motor responding and visual processing. Given this, and the marked thalamic pathophysiology now identified in many neuropsychiatric disorders, we suggest that changes in the different subdivisions of the MD and their interconnections with the cortex could plausibly give rise to a number of the otherwise disparate symptoms (including changes to olfaction and cognitive functioning) that are associated with many different neuropsychiatric disorders. In particular, we will focus here on the cognitive symptoms of schizophrenia and suggest testable hypotheses about how changes to MD-frontal cortex interactions may affect cognitive processes in this disorder.