Cholinergic innervation of the human thalamus: dual origin and differential nuclear distribution

J Comp Neurol. 1992 Nov 1;325(1):68-82. doi: 10.1002/cne.903250107.


The cholinergic innervation of the human thalamus was studied with antibodies against the enzyme choline acetyltransferase (ChAT) and nerve growth factor receptor (NGFr). Acetylcholinesterase histochemistry was used to delineate nuclear boundaries. All thalamic nuclei displayed ChAT-positive axons and varicosities. Only the medial habenula contained ChAT-positive perikarya. Some intralaminar nuclei (central medial, central lateral, and paracentral), the reticular nucleus, midline nuclei (paraventricular and reuniens), some nuclei associated with the limbic system (anterodorsal nucleus and medially situated patches in the mediodorsal nucleus) and the lateral geniculate nucleus displayed the highest density of ChAT-positive axonal varicosities. The remaining sensory relay nuclei and the nuclei interconnected with the motor and association cortex displayed a lower level of innervation. Immunoreactivity for NGFr was observed in cholinergic neurons of the basal forebrain but not in cholinergic neurons of the upper brainstem. The contribution of basal forebrain afferents to the cholinergic innervation of the human thalamus was therefore studied with the aid of NGFr-immunoreactive axonal staining. The anterior intralaminar nuclei, the reticular nucleus, and medially situated patches in the mediodorsal nucleus displayed a substantial number of NGFr-positive varicose axons, presumably originating in the basal forebrain. Rare NGFr-positive axonal profiles were also seen in many of the other thalamic nuclei. These observations suggest that thalamic nuclei affiliated with limbic structures and with the ascending reticular activating system are likely to be under particularly intense cholinergic influence. While the vast majority of thalamic cholinergic input seems to come from the upper brainstem, the intralaminar and reticular nuclei, and especially medially situated patches within the mediodorsal nucleus also appear to receive substantial cholinergic innervation from the basal forebrain.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcholine / physiology*
  • Acetylcholinesterase / analysis
  • Aged
  • Choline O-Acetyltransferase / analysis*
  • Histocytochemistry
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Middle Aged
  • Receptors, Nerve Growth Factor / analysis*
  • Staining and Labeling
  • Thalamic Nuclei / chemistry*
  • Thalamic Nuclei / enzymology


  • Receptors, Nerve Growth Factor
  • Choline O-Acetyltransferase
  • Acetylcholinesterase
  • Acetylcholine