Layer 6 (L6) is the sole purveyor of corticothalamic (CT) feedback to first-order thalamus and also sends projections to higher-order thalamus, yet how it engages the full corticothalamic circuit to contribute to sensory processing in an awake animal remains unknown. We sought to elucidate the functional impact of L6CT projections from the primary visual cortex to the dorsolateral geniculate nucleus (first-order) and pulvinar (higher-order) using optogenetics and extracellular electrophysiology in awake mice. While sustained L6CT photostimulation suppresses activity in both visual thalamic nuclei in vivo, moderate-frequency (10 Hz) stimulation powerfully facilitates thalamic spiking. We show that each stimulation paradigm differentially influences the balance between monosynaptic excitatory and disynaptic inhibitory corticothalamic pathways to the dorsolateral geniculate nucleus and pulvinar, as well as the prevalence of burst versus tonic firing. Altogether, our results support a model in which L6CTs modulate first- and higher-order thalamus through parallel excitatory and inhibitory pathways that are highly dynamic and context-dependent.
Keywords: TRN; corticothalamic; dLGN; optogenetics; pulvinar.