Neurons in cortical layer 5B (L5B) connect the cortex to numerous subcortical areas. Possibly the best-studied L5B cortico-subcortical connection is that between L5B neurons in the rodent barrel cortex (BC) and the posterior medial nucleus of the thalamus (POm). However, the spatial organization of L5B giant boutons in the POm and other subcortical targets is not known, and therefore it is unclear if this descending pathway retains somatotopy, i.e., body map organization, a hallmark of the ascending somatosensory pathway. We investigated the organization of the descending L5B pathway from the BC by dual-color anterograde labeling. We reconstructed and quantified the bouton clouds originating from adjacent L5B columns in the BC in three dimensions. L5B cells target six nuclei in the anterior midbrain and thalamus, including the posterior thalamus, the zona incerta, and the anterior pretectum. The L5B subcortical innervation is target specific in terms of bouton numbers, density, and projection volume. Common to all target nuclei investigated here is the maintenance of projection topology from different barrel columns in the BC, albeit with target-specific precision. We estimated low cortico-subcortical convergence and divergence, demonstrating that the L5B corticothalamic pathway is sparse and highly parallelized. Finally, the spatial organization of boutons and whisker map organization revealed the subdivision of the posterior group of the thalamus into four subnuclei (anterior, lateral, medial, and posterior). In conclusion, corticofugal L5B neurons establish a widespread cortico-subcortical network via sparse and somatotopically organized parallel pathways.
Keywords: corticothalamic projections; posterior medial thalamic nucleus; somatotopy; thalamus; whisker system.