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Theses Doctoral

Adolescence in the Development of the Prefrontal Cortex and Mediodorsal Thalamus

Benoît, Laura Jacqueline

Cognitive impairments are a hallmark of many, if not all, psychiatric disorders. They include deficits in working memory, attention, and cognitive flexibility. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is essential for these cognitive functions and has been implicated in psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia. The PFC receives reciprocal inputs from the thalamus, and this thalamo-PFC circuitry supports cognition. In patients with schizophrenia, who have impaired cognitive functioning, thalamo-PFC connectivity is disrupted. This finding is also seen in adolescents at high risk for the disorder, even before diagnosis.While impaired cortical maturation has been postulated as a mechanism in the etiology of schizophrenia, the postnatal development of thalamo-PFC circuitry is still poorly understood. In sensory cortex, activity relayed by the thalamus during a postnatal sensitive period is essential for proper cortical maturation. However, whether thalamic activity also shapes maturation of the PFC is unknown.

Here, I will present evidence to support the hypothesis that adolescence represents a sensitive period, during which the PFC is susceptible to transient perturbations in thalamic input activity, resulting in persistent changes in circuitry.

In Chapter 1, I present the existing literature on schizophrenia and our current understanding of its etiology. I then review the structure and connectivity of the PFC and its inputs, including the thalamus, in the context of schizophrenia and cognition. Next, I discuss the role of adolescence in the development of these structures and circuits. Finally, I introduce the concept of sensitive periods and outline the hypothesis that a similar process may occur in the context of the adolescent development of thalamo-PFC circuitry.

To assess cognitive functioning in mouse models, I developed an operant-based working memory task. In Chapter 2, I describe this newly developed task and demonstrate that behavioral performance in the task is susceptible to PFC lesions. Thus, the task offers a new approach to studying PFC cognitive function.
In Chapter 3, I discuss work done to address the hypothesis of adolescence as a sensitive period in the development of thalamo-PFC circuitry. I established an approach whereby I can transiently reduce activity in the thalamus during specific time windows. In this way, I compared the persistent effects of transient thalamic inhibition during adolescence and adulthood. I found that adolescent thalamic inhibition causes long-lasting deficits in cognitive behavioral performance, including the operant-based working memory task described in Chapter 2 and a cognitive flexibility task, decreased PFC cellular excitability, and reduced thalamo-PFC projection density. Meanwhile, adult thalamic inhibition has no persistent consequences on behavior or PFC excitability.

Adolescent thalamic inhibition also results in disrupted PFC cellular cross-correlations and task outcome encoding during the cognitive flexibility task. Strikingly, exciting the thalamus in adulthood during the behavioral task rescues PFC cross-correlations, task outcome encoding, and the cognitive deficit.
These data support the hypothesis that adolescence is a sensitive period in thalamo-PFC circuit maturation as adolescent thalamic inhibition has long-lasting consequences on PFC circuitry, while adult thalamic inhibition has no persistent effects. Moreover, these results highlight the role of the thalamus as a non-specific facilitator of PFC activity, expanding our understanding of this thalamic function to additional cognitive contexts. By supporting PFC network activity, boosting thalamic activity provides a potential therapeutic strategy for rescuing cognitive deficits in neurodevelopmental disorders.

Finally, in Chapter 4, I conclude with a general discussion. I highlight major take-aways from this work as well as next steps in our exploration of these crucial neural circuits. Together, the findings outlined here offer new promise for early diagnosis and treatment options for patients with cognitive impairments and psychiatric disorders.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Neurobiology and Behavior
Thesis Advisors
Kellendonk, Christoph B.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
November 17, 2021