Gating of attentional effort through the central thalamus
Intralaminar Thalamic Nuclei
The central thalamus plays an important role in the regulation of arousal and allocation of attentional resources in the performance of even simple tasks. To assess the contribution of central thalamic neurons to short-term adjustments of attentional effort, we analyzed 166 microelectrode recordings obtained from two rhesus monkeys performing a visuomotor simple reaction time task with a variable foreperiod. Multiunit responses showed maintained firing rate elevations during the variable delay period of the task in ∼24% of recording sites. Simultaneously recorded local field potentials demonstrated significant decreases in power at ∼10-20 Hz and increases in power at 30-100 Hz during the delay period when compared against precue baselines. Comparison of the spectral power of local field potentials during the delay period of correct and incorrect trials showed that, during incorrect trials, similar, but reduced, shifts of spectral power occurred within the same frequency bands. Sustained performance of even simple tasks requires regulation of arousal and attention that combine in the concept of "attentional effort". Our findings suggest that central thalamic neurons regulate task performance through brief changes in firing rates and spectral power changes during task-relevant short-term shifts of attentional effort. Increases in attentional effort may be reflected in changes within the central thalamic local populations, where correct task performance associates with more robust maintenance of firing rates during the delay period. Such ongoing fluctuations of central thalamic activity likely reflect a mix of influences, including variations in moment-to-moment levels of motivation, arousal, and availability of cognitive resources.