The functional role of the subthalamic nucleus in cognitive and limbic circuits

Prog Neurobiol. 2005 Aug;76(6):393-413. doi: 10.1016/j.pneurobio.2005.09.005. Epub 2005 Oct 24.


Once it was believed that the subthalamic nucleus (STN) was no more than a relay station serving as a "gate" for ascending basal ganglia-thalamocortical circuits. Nowadays, the STN is considered to be one of the main regulators of motor function related to the basal ganglia. The role of the STN in the regulation of associative and limbic functions related to the basal ganglia has generally received little attention. In the present review, the functional role of the STN in the control of cortico-basal ganglia-thalamocortical associative and limbic circuits is discussed. In the past 20 years the concepts about the functional role of the STN have changed dramatically: from being an inhibitory nucleus to a potent excitatory nucleus, and from being involved in hyperkinesias to hypokinesias. However, it has been demonstrated only recently, mainly by reports on the behavioral (side-) effects of STN deep brain stimulation (DBS), which is a popular surgical technique in the treatment of patients suffering from advanced Parkinson Disease (PD), that the STN is clinically involved in associative and limbic functions. These findings were confirmed by results from animal studies. Experimental studies applying STN DBS or STN lesions to investigate the neuronal mechanisms involved in these procedures found profound effects on cognitive and motivational parameters. The anatomical, electrophysiological and behavioral data presented in this review point towards a potent regulatory function of the STN in the processing of associative and limbic information towards cortical and subcortical regions. In conclusion, it can be stated that the STN has anatomically a central position within the basal ganglia thalamocortical associative and limbic circuits and is functionally a potent regulator of these pathways.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Limbic System / physiology*
  • Motor Activity / physiology*
  • Movement / physiology*
  • Movement Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Neural Pathways / physiology*
  • Subthalamic Nucleus / physiology*