The authors report on and discuss the historical evolution of the 3 intellectual and scientific domains essential for the current understanding of the function of the human thalamus: 1) the identification of the thalamus as a distinct anatomical and functional entity, 2) the subdivision of thalamic gray matter into functionally homogeneous units (the thalamic nuclei) and relative disputes about nuclei nomenclature, and 3) experimental physiology and its limitations.
Galen was allegedly the first to identify the thalamus. The etymology of the term remains unknown although it is hypothesized that Galen may have wanted to recall the thalamus of Odysseus. Burdach was the first to clearly and systematically define the thalamus and its macroscopic anatomy, which paved the way to understanding its internal microarchitecture. This structure in turn was studied in both nonhuman primates (Friedemann) and humans (Vogt and Vogt), leading to several discrepancies in the findings because of interspecies differences. As a consequence, two main nomenclatures developed, generating sometimes inconsistent (or nonreproducible) anatomo-functional correlations. Recently, considerable effort has been aimed at producing a unified nomenclature, based mainly on functional data, which is indispensable for future developments. The development of knowledge about macro- and microscopic anatomy has allowed a shift from the first galenic speculations about thalamic function (the “thalamus opticorum nervorum”) to more detailed insights into the sensory and motor function of the thalamus in the 19th and 20th centuries. This progress is mostly the result of lesion and tracing studies. Direct evidence of the in vivo function of the human thalamus, however, originates from awake stereotactic procedures only.
Our current knowledge about the function of the human thalamus is the result of a long process that occurred over several centuries and has been inextricably intermingled with the increasing accumulation of data about thalamic macro- and microscopic anatomy. Although the thalamic anatomy can currently be considered well understood, further studies are still needed to gain a deeper insight into the function of the human thalamus in vivo.