The advance of knowledge of the thalamic reticular nucleus and its connections has been reviewed and Max Cowan's contributions to this knowledge and to the methods used for studying the nucleus have been summarized. Whereas 50 years ago the nucleus was seen as a diffusely organized cell group closely related to the brain stem reticular formation, it can now be seen as a complex, tightly organized entity that has a significant inhibitory, modulatory action on the thalamic relay to cortex. The nucleus is under the control, on the one hand, of topographically organized afferents from the cerebral cortex and the thalamus, and on the other of more diffuse afferents from brain stem, basal forebrain, and other regions. Whereas the second group of afferents can be expected to have global actions on thalamocortical transmission, relevant for overall attentive state, the former group will have local actions, modulating transmission through the thalamus to cortex with highly specific local effects. Since it appears that all areas of cortex and all parts of the thalamus are linked directly to the reticular nucleus, it now becomes important to define how the several pathways that pass through the thalamus relate to each other in their reticular connections.
Copyright 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.