Cortically-controlled population stochastic facilitation as a plausible substrate for guiding sensory transfer across the thalamic gateway

PLoS Comput Biol. 2013;9(12):e1003401. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003401. Epub 2013 Dec 26.


The thalamus is the primary gateway that relays sensory information to the cerebral cortex. While a single recipient cortical cell receives the convergence of many principal relay cells of the thalamus, each thalamic cell in turn integrates a dense and distributed synaptic feedback from the cortex. During sensory processing, the influence of this functional loop remains largely ignored. Using dynamic-clamp techniques in thalamic slices in vitro, we combined theoretical and experimental approaches to implement a realistic hybrid retino-thalamo-cortical pathway mixing biological cells and simulated circuits. The synaptic bombardment of cortical origin was mimicked through the injection of a stochastic mixture of excitatory and inhibitory conductances, resulting in a gradable correlation level of afferent activity shared by thalamic cells. The study of the impact of the simulated cortical input on the global retinocortical signal transfer efficiency revealed a novel control mechanism resulting from the collective resonance of all thalamic relay neurons. We show here that the transfer efficiency of sensory input transmission depends on three key features: i) the number of thalamocortical cells involved in the many-to-one convergence from thalamus to cortex, ii) the statistics of the corticothalamic synaptic bombardment and iii) the level of correlation imposed between converging thalamic relay cells. In particular, our results demonstrate counterintuitively that the retinocortical signal transfer efficiency increases when the level of correlation across thalamic cells decreases. This suggests that the transfer efficiency of relay cells could be selectively amplified when they become simultaneously desynchronized by the cortical feedback. When applied to the intact brain, this network regulation mechanism could direct an attentional focus to specific thalamic subassemblies and select the appropriate input lines to the cortex according to the descending influence of cortically-defined "priors".

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Stochastic Processes*
  • Synapses / physiology
  • Thalamus / physiology*

Grant support

SB was supported by the French DGA (Direction Générale de l'Armement). This work was supported by the CNRS, the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR-10-BLAN-1402: V1-Complex) and EC contracts (Facets (FP6-2004-IST-FETPI 15879), Brain-i-nets (FP7-2009-ICT-FET 243914) and BrainScales (FP7-269921)). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.