Schizophrenia is a devastating illness with an indeterminate pathophysiology. Several lines of evidence implicate dysfunction in the thalamus, a key node in the distributed neural networks underlying perception, emotion, and cognition. Existing evidence of aberrant thalamic function is based on indirect measures of thalamic activity, but dysfunction has not yet been demonstrated with a causal method.
To test the hypothesis that direct physiological stimulation of the cortex will produce an abnormal thalamic response in individuals with schizophrenia.
We stimulated the precentral gyrus with single-pulse transcranial magnetic stimulation (spTMS) and measured the response to this pulse in synaptically connected regions (thalamus, medial superior frontal cortex, insula) using concurrent functional magnetic resonance imaging. The mean hemodynamic response from these regions was fit with the sum of 2 gamma functions, and response parameters were compared across groups.
Academic research laboratory.
Patients with schizophrenia and sex- and age-matched psychiatrically healthy subjects were recruited from the community.
Main Outcome Measure
Peak amplitude of the thalamic hemodynamic response to spTMS of the precentral gyrus.
The spTMS-evoked responses did not differ between groups at the cortical stimulation site. Compared with healthy subjects, patients with schizophrenia showed a reduced response to spTMS in the thalamus (P = 1.86 × 10−9) and medial superior frontal cortex (P = .02). Similar results were observed in the insula. Sham TMS indicated that these results could not be attributed to indirect effects of TMS coil discharge. Functional connectivity analyses revealed weaker thalamus–medial superior frontal cortex and thalamus-insula connectivity in patients with schizophrenia compared with control subjects.
Individuals with schizophrenia showed reduced thalamic activation in response to direct perturbation delivered to the cortex. These results extend prior work implicating the thalamus in the pathophysiology of schizophrenia and suggest that the thalamus contributes to the patterns of aberrant connectivity characteristic of this disease.