The sensory neocortex is a critical substrate for memory. Despite its strong connection with the thalamus, the role of direct thalamocortical communication in memory remains elusive. We performed chronic in vivo two-photon calcium imaging of thalamic synapses in mouse auditory cortex layer 1, a major locus of cortical associations. Combined with optogenetics, viral tracing, whole-cell recording, and computational modeling, we find that the higher-order thalamus is required for associative learning and transmits memory-related information that closely correlates with acquired behavioral relevance. In turn, these signals are tightly and dynamically controlled by local presynaptic inhibition. Our results not only identify the higher-order thalamus as a highly plastic source of cortical top-down information but also reveal a level of computational flexibility in layer 1 that goes far beyond hard-wired connectivity.
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