Involvement of the human ventrolateral thalamus in olfaction

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It is widely assumed that the thalamus is not involved in olfaction. The ventrolateral thalamus is, however, closely connected to the contralateral cerebellum, which is involved in the sense of smell based on findings from functional imaging studies and findings of olfactory deficits in patients with cerebellar disease. We hypothesized that olfactory deficits following lesions of the ventrolateral thalamus may be similar to olfactory deficits following cerebellar lesions. Fifteen patients with a focal thalamic lesion involving the ventrolateral thalamus were examined and compared to 15 patients with a focal cerebellar lesion and 15 healthy controls. A detailed olfactory test (“Sniffin' Sticks”) was used to assess different olfactory functions separately for each nostril. In the group of patients with a lesion of the ventrolateral thalamus, an impairment of the odor threshold was found at the ipsilateral nostril, consistent with the unilateral orientation of the olfactory system in the telencephalon. In the group of patients with a cerebellar lesion, an olfactory deficit at the contralesional nostril emerged. In controls, no significant side difference was found. The involvement of the ventrolateral thalamus in olfaction is comparable to that of the cerebellum in respect to odor threshold. Further study is needed to assess if these findings are related to an impairment of an olfactomotor loop. Present evidence for this hypothesis is indirect. Effects were subclinical as none of the patients reported olfactory disturbance. The results suggest that the cerebello-thalamic axis plays an adjuvant role in olfaction.

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