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The importance of combinatorial gene expression in early Mammalian thalamic patterning and thalamocortical axonal guidance

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Original languageEnglish
Article number37
Number of pages15
JournalFrontiers in Neuroscience
Publication statusPublished - 2012


The thalamus is essential for sensory perception. In mammals, work on the mouse has taught us most of what we know about how it develops and connects to the cortex. The mature thalamus of all mammalian species comprises numerous anatomically distinct collections of neurons called nuclei that differ in function, connectivity, and molecular constitution. At the time of its initial appearance as a distinct structure following neural tube closure, the thalamus is already patterned by the regional expression of numerous regulatory genes. This patterning, which lays down the blueprint for later development of thalamic nuclei, predates the development of thalamocortical projections. In this review we apply novel analytical methods to gene expression data available in the Allen Developing Mouse Brain Atlas to highlight the complex organized molecular heterogeneity already present among cells in the thalamus from the earliest stages at which it contains differentiating neurons. This early patterning is likely to invest in axons growing from different parts of the thalamus the ability to navigate in an ordered way to their appropriate area in the cerebral cortex. We review the mechanisms and cues that thalamic axons use, encounter, and interpret to attain the cortex. Mechanisms include guidance by previously generated guidepost cells, such as those in the subpallium that maintain thalamic axonal order and direction, and axons such as those of reciprocal projections from intermediate structures or from the cortex itself back toward the thalamus. We show how thalamocortical pathfinding involves numerous guidance cues operating at a series of steps along their route. We stress the importance of the combinatorial actions of multiple genes for the development of the numerous specific identities and functions of cells in this exquisitely complex system and their orderly innervation of the cortex.

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