Thalamus Modulates Consciousness via Layer-Specific Control of Cortex

Neuron. 2020 Apr 8;106(1):66-75.e12. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2020.01.005. Epub 2020 Feb 12.


Functional MRI and electrophysiology studies suggest that consciousness depends on large-scale thalamocortical and corticocortical interactions. However, it is unclear how neurons in different cortical layers and circuits contribute. We simultaneously recorded from central lateral thalamus (CL) and across layers of the frontoparietal cortex in awake, sleeping, and anesthetized macaques. We found that neurons in thalamus and deep cortical layers are most sensitive to changes in consciousness level, consistent across different anesthetic agents and sleep. Deep-layer activity is sustained by interactions with CL. Consciousness also depends on deep-layer neurons providing feedback to superficial layers (not to deep layers), suggesting that long-range feedback and intracolumnar signaling are important. To show causality, we stimulated CL in anesthetized macaques and effectively restored arousal and wake-like neural processing. This effect was location and frequency specific. Our findings suggest layer-specific thalamocortical correlates of consciousness and inform how targeted deep brain stimulation can alleviate disorders of consciousness.

Keywords: anesthesia; central thalamus; consciousness; deep brain stimulation; feedback; feedforward; frontal cortex; oscillations; parietal cortex; sleep.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anesthesia, General
  • Anesthetics, Inhalation / pharmacology
  • Anesthetics, Intravenous / pharmacology
  • Animals
  • Cerebral Cortex / drug effects
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology
  • Consciousness / drug effects
  • Consciousness / physiology*
  • Electric Stimulation
  • Electroencephalography
  • Feedback
  • Frontal Lobe / drug effects
  • Frontal Lobe / physiology*
  • Intralaminar Thalamic Nuclei / drug effects
  • Intralaminar Thalamic Nuclei / physiology*
  • Isoflurane / pharmacology
  • Macaca
  • Neural Pathways / drug effects
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Parietal Lobe / drug effects
  • Parietal Lobe / physiology*
  • Propofol / pharmacology
  • Sleep / physiology*
  • Wakefulness / physiology*


  • Anesthetics, Inhalation
  • Anesthetics, Intravenous
  • Isoflurane
  • Propofol