Thalamocortical loops, connecting functionally segregated, higher order cortical regions, and basal ganglia, have been proposed not only for well described motor and sensory regions, but also for limbic and prefrontal areas relevant for affective and cognitive processes. These functions are, however, more specific to humans, rendering most invasive neuroanatomical approaches impossible and interspecies translations difficult. In contrast, non-invasive imaging of functional neuroanatomy using fMRI allows for the development of elaborate task paradigms capable of testing the specific functionalities proposed for these circuits. Until recently, spatial resolution largely limited the anatomical definition of functional clusters at the level of distinct thalamic nuclei. Since their anatomical distinction seems crucial not only for the segregation of cognitive and limbic loops but also for the detection of their functional interaction during cognitive-emotional integration, we applied high resolution fMRI on 7 Tesla. Using an event-related design, we could isolate thalamic effects for preceding attention as well as experience of erotic stimuli. We could demonstrate specific thalamic effects of general emotional arousal in mediodorsal nucleus and effects specific to preceding attention and expectancy in intralaminar centromedian/parafascicular complex. These thalamic effects were paralleled by specific coactivations in the head of caudate nucleus as well as segregated portions of rostral or caudal cingulate cortex and anterior insula supporting distinct thalamo-striato-cortical loops. In addition to predescribed effects of sexual arousal in hypothalamus and ventral striatum, high resolution fMRI could extent this network to paraventricular thalamus encompassing laterodorsal and parataenial nuclei. We could lend evidence to segregated subcortical loops which integrate cognitive and emotional aspects of basic human behavior such as sexual processing.
Keywords: basal ganglia; centromedian/parafascicular thalamus; cognition; emotion; high field fMRI; mediodorsal thalamus; salience processing; sexual processing.