In order to learn about the world, an animal needs to do more than just pay attention to its surroundings. It also needs to learn which sights, sounds and sensations in its environment are the most important and monitor how the importance of those details change over time. Yet how humans and other animals track those details has remained a mystery.
Now, Stanford biologists report Oct. 26 in Science, they think they’ve figured out how animals sort through the details. A part of the brain called the paraventricular thalamus, or PVT, serves as a kind of gatekeeper, making sure that the brain identifies and tracks the most salient details of a situation. Although the research, funded in part by the Wu Tsai Neuroscience Institute’s Neurochoice Initiative, is confined to mice for now, the results could one day help researchers better understand how humans learn or even help treat drug addiction, said senior author Xiaoke Chen, an assistant professor of biology.
The results are a surprise, Chen said, in part because few had suspected the thalamus could do something so sophisticated. “We showed thalamic cells play a very important role in keeping track of the behavioral significance of stimuli, which nobody had done before,” said Chen, who is also a member of Stanford Bio-X and the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute.