Causal Evidence From Humans for the Role of Mediodorsal Nucleus of the Thalamus in Working Memory

Jari Peräkylä, Lihua Sun, Kai Lehtimäki, Jukka Peltola, Juha Öhman, Timo Möttönen, Keith Ogawa, Kaisa Hartikainen

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The mediodorsal nucleus of the thalamus (MD), with its extensive connections to the lateral pFC, has been implicated in human working memory and executive functions. However, this understanding is based solely on indirect evidence from human lesion and imaging studies and animal studies. Direct, causal evidence from humans is missing. To obtain direct evidence for MD's role in humans, we studied patients treated with deep brain stimulation (DBS) for refractory epilepsy. This treatment is thought to prevent the generalization of a seizure by disrupting the functioning of the patient's anterior nuclei of the thalamus (ANT) with high-frequency electric stimulation. This structure is located superior and anterior to MD, and when the DBS lead is implanted in ANT, tip contacts of the lead typically penetrate through ANT into the adjoining MD. To study the role of MD in human executive functions and working memory, we periodically disrupted and recovered MD's function with high-frequency electric stimulation using DBS contacts reaching MD while participants performed a cognitive task engaging several aspects of executive functions. We hypothesized that the efficacy of executive functions, specifically working memory, is impaired when the functioning of MD is perturbed by high-frequency stimulation. Eight participants treated with ANT-DBS for refractory epilepsy performed a computer-based test of executive functions while DBS was repeatedly switched ON and OFF at MD and at the control location (ANT). In comparison to stimulation of the control location, when MD was stimulated, participants committed 2.26 times more errors in general (total errors; OR = 2.26, 95% CI [1.69, 3.01]) and 2.86 times more working memory-related errors specifically (incorrect button presses; OR = 2.88, CI [1.95, 4.24]). Similarly, participants committed 1.81 more errors in general ( OR = 1.81, CI [1.45, 2.24]) and 2.08 times more working memory-related errors ( OR = 2.08, CI [1.57, 2.75]) in comparison to no stimulation condition. "Total errors" is a composite score consisting of basic error types and was mostly driven by working memory-related errors. The facts that MD and a control location, ANT, are only few millimeters away from each other and that their stimulation produces very different results highlight the location-specific effect of DBS rather than regionally unspecific general effect. In conclusion, disrupting and recovering MD's function with high-frequency electric stimulation modulated participants' online working memory performance providing causal, in vivo evidence from humans for the role of MD in human working memory.

Original languageAmerican English
JournalJournal of Cognitive Neuroscience
StatePublished - Dec 1 2017


  • Psychology

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