Objectives: The most relevant results of studies on the anatomo-physiological substrate of the thalamic rhythmogenic mechanisms responsible for sleep spindles and spike-wave discharges are reviewed.
Methods: The reviewed experiments have been carried out in cats, rodents and other mammals with either in vivo or in vitro electrophysiological recording.
Results: The rhythmic bilateral and synchronous EEG activities underlying sleep spindles and spike-wave discharges have been found to be correlated with oscillatory patterns involving mutually interconnected cortical and thalamic neurons. These rhythmic patterns are generated in thalamic neurons when the membrane potential, which is modulated by aminergic and cholinergic systems, is set to a level where the low threshold calcium current is de-inactivated. The pacemaker structure responsible for the initiation of the thalamo-cortical oscillatory activities has been identified as the reticular thalamic nucleus, a GABAergic structure projecting exclusively to the other thalamic nuclei. Experiments carried out in GAERS (genetic absence epilepsy rat from Strasbourg) demonstrated in this rat model of inherited absence epilepsy an enhancement of the pacemaker properties of the thalamic nucleus, due to a genetically determined increase in the low threshold calcium current, which is responsible for the pathological synchronization underlying spike-wave discharges.
Conclusions: Recent experiments confirm the longstanding hypothesis that spindles and spike-wave discharges share common mechanisms involving thalamo-cortical circuitry. Due to its unusual anatomic and functional organization the nucleus reticularis thalami plays a crucial role as pacemaker of these rhythmic EEG activities.