The activity of thalamocortical neurons is primarily determined by giant excitatory terminals, called drivers. These afferents may arise from neocortex or from subcortical centers; however, their exact distribution, segregation, or putative absence in given thalamic nuclei are unknown. To unravel the nucleus-specific composition of drivers, we mapped the entire macaque thalamus using vesicular glutamate transporters 1 and 2 to label cortical and subcortical afferents, respectively. Large thalamic territories were innervated exclusively by either giant vGLUT2- or vGLUT1-positive boutons. Codistribution of drivers with different origin was not abundant. In several thalamic regions, no giant terminals of any type could be detected at light microscopic level. Electron microscopic observation of these territories revealed either the complete absence of large multisynaptic excitatory terminals (basal ganglia-recipient nuclei) or the presence of both vGLUT1- and vGLUT2-positive terminals, which were significantly smaller than their giant counterparts (intralaminar nuclei, medial pulvinar). In the basal ganglia-recipient thalamus, giant inhibitory terminals replaced the excitatory driver inputs. The pulvinar and the mediodorsal nucleus displayed subnuclear heterogeneity in their driver assemblies. These results show that distinct thalamic territories can be under pure subcortical or cortical control; however, there is significant variability in the composition of major excitatory inputs in several thalamic regions. Because thalamic information transfer depends on the origin and complexity of the excitatory inputs, this suggests that the computations performed by individual thalamic regions display considerable variability. Finally, the map of driver distribution may help to resolve the morphological basis of human diseases involving different parts of the thalamus.
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