Phylogenetic modifications are such that this article essentially deals with the human thalamus and may differ in comparison with accounts in non-upper primate species. In normal humans, the two thalami are prominent bulb-shaped masses, about 5.7 cm in length, located obliquely (about 30°) and symmetrically on each side of the third ventricle. The two can adhere on a variable extent in 30% of humans. This adhesio interthalamica (interthalamic adhesion, or massa intermedia) does not contain interthalamic neural connection in human beings.
See also List of thalamic nuclei.
The thalamus also plays an important role in regulating states of sleep and wakefulness. Thalamic nuclei have strong reciprocal connections with the cerebral cortex, forming thalamo-cortico-thalamic circuits that are believed to be involved with consciousness. The thalamus plays a major role in regulating arousal, the level of awareness, and activity. Damage to the thalamus can lead to permanent coma.
Many different functions are linked to the system to which thalamic parts belong. This is at first the case for sensory systems (which excepts the olfactory function) auditory, somatic, visceral, gustatory and visual systems where localised lesions provoke particular sensory deficits. A major role of the thalamus is devoted to "motor" systems. This has been and continues to be a subject of interest for investigators. VIm, the relay of cerebellar afferences, is the target of stereotactians particularly for the improvement of tremor. The role of the thalamus in the more anterior pallidal and nigral territories in the basal ganglia system disturbances is recognized but still poorly known. The contribution of the thalamus to vestibular or to tectal functions is almost ignored. The thalamus has been thought of as a "relay" that simply forwards signals to the cerebral cortex. Newer research suggests that thalamic function is more complicated.
Korsakoff's Syndrome stems from mammillary bodies, mammilothalamic, or thalamic lesions.
The ZLI is a transverse boundary located between the perithalamus and the functional distinct thalamus. Besides its morphological characteristics, it bears the hallmarks of a signalling centre. Fate mapping experiments in chicks have shown that the ZLI is cell lineage restricted at its boundaries and therefore can be termed a true developmental compartment in the forebrain.
Besides morphological characteristics, the ZLI is the only structure in the alar plate of the neural tube that expresses signaling molecules.
In mice, the function of signaling at the ZLI has not been addressed directly due to a complete absence of the diencephalon in Shh mutants.
Studies in chicks have shown that Shh is both necessary and sufficient for thalamic gene induction.
In zebrafish, it was shown that the expression of two Shh genes, shh-a and shh-b (formerly described as twhh) mark the ZLI territory, and that Shh signaling is sufficient for the molecular differentiation of both the prethalamus and the thalamus but is not required for their maintenance and Shh signaling from the ZLI/alar plate is sufficient for the maturation of prethalamic and thalamic territory while ventral Shh signals are dispensable.
In humans, a common genetic variation in the promotor region of the serotonin transporter (the SERT-long and -short allele: 5-HTTLPR) has been shown to affect the development of several regions of the thalamus in adults. People who inherit two short alleles (SERT-ss) have more neurons and a larger volume in the pulvinar and possibly the limbic regions of the thalamus. Enlargement of the thalamus provides an anatomical basis for why people who inherit two SERT-ss alleles are more vulnerable to major depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and suicide.