Do the anterior and lateral thalamic nuclei make distinct contributions to spatial representation and memory?

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The anterior and lateral thalamus has long been considered to play an important role in spatial and mnemonic cognitive functions; however, it remains unclear whether each region makes a unique contribution to spatial information processing. We begin by reviewing evidence from anatomical studies and electrophysiological recordings which suggest that at least one of the functions of the anterior thalamus is to guide spatial orientation in relation to a global or distal spatial framework, while the lateral thalamus serves to guide behavior in relation to a local or proximal framework. We conclude by reviewing experimental work using targeted manipulations (lesion or neuronal silencing) of thalamic nuclei during spatial behavior and single-unit recordings from neuronal representations of space. Our summary of this literature suggests that although the evidence strongly supports a working model of spatial information processing involving the anterior thalamus, research regarding the role of the lateral thalamus is limited and requires further attention. We therefore identify a number of major gaps in this research and suggest avenues of future study that could potentially solidify our understanding of the relative roles of anterior and lateral thalamic regions in spatial representation and memory.

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