Flexibly selecting appropriate actions in response to complex, ever-changing environments requires both cortical and subcortical regions, which are typically described as participating in a strict hierarchy. In this traditional view, highly specialized subcortical circuits allow for efficient responses to salient stimuli, at the cost of adaptability and context specificity, which are attributed to the neocortex. Their interactions are often described as the cortex providing top-down command signals for subcortical structures to implement; however, as available technologies develop, studies increasingly demonstrate that behavior is represented by brainwide activity and that even subcortical structures contain early signals of choice, suggesting that behavioral functions emerge as a result of different regions interacting as truly collaborative networks. In this review, we discuss the field’s evolving understanding of how cortical and subcortical regions in placental mammals interact cooperatively, not only via top-down cortical-subcortical inputs but through bottom-up interactions, especially via the thalamus. We describe our current understanding of the circuitry of both the cortex and two exemplar subcortical structures, the superior colliculus and striatum, to identify which information is prioritized by which regions. We then describe the functional circuits these regions form with one another, and the thalamus, to create parallel loops and complex networks for brainwide information flow. Finally, we challenge the classic view that functional modules are contained within specific brain regions; instead, we propose that certain regions prioritize specific types of information over others, but the subnetworks they form, defined by their anatomical connections and functional dynamics, are the basis of true specialization.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Molecular Biology
- Physiology (medical)
- cortical-subcortical interactions
- sensorimotor transformation
- superior colliculus