The GABAergic neurons of the thalamic reticular nucleus, or nucleus reticularis thalami (RT), have been implicated as important components in attentional processing systems. Neurons in the RT are exquisitely sensitive to degeneration following kainic and domoic acid toxicity, experimental global ischemia, human cardiac arrest, and experimental closed head injury in nonhuman primates. The present study was performed to establish whether the selective loss of human RT neurons occurred following severe head injury. Brains from 37 human nonsurvivors of head injury were examined for evidence of RT neuronal loss. RT lesions in were found in 36 of 37 cases, representing 65 of 73 (89%) of the reticular nuclei examined. The incidence of RT lesions was similar in all age groups: 13 of 14 cases (92.9%) in the pediatric (< or = 16 years) group, 33 of 37 (89.2%) in the young adult (18-45 years) group, and 19 of 22 (86.4%) in the older adult (> 45 years) group. RT lesions were characterized by loss of one fourth to three fourths of the neurons from the region of the nucleus associated with the frontal cortex and thalamic mediodorsal (MD) and ventrolateral (VL) nuclei. Sparing of RT neurons correlated highly with the presence of extensive frontal cortical lesions, suggesting that an intact corticothalamic projection was necessary for RT degeneration following head injury. A pathologic cascade with a prominent excitotoxic component is proposed. The loss of these inhibitory thalamic reticular neurons and the resultant thalamic and neocortical neuronal dysfunctions may underlie some forms of attentional deficits that persist following head injury.