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Functional Aspects of the Basal Ganglia 

Functional Aspects of the Basal Ganglia
Functional Aspects of the Basal Ganglia

Thomas Wichmann

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date: 21 October 2021

The basal ganglia are a group of subcortical structures, including the striatum, the globus pallidus, the substantia nigra, and the subthalamic nucleus. Current hypotheses regarding the behavioural function of these structures exploit several major anatomical characteristics that have been identified over the last decades. One is that the basal ganglia participate in a family of segregated and similarly structured circuits that also involve thalamus and cortex. Therefore, depending on the cortical inputs, the basal ganglia may perform the same general processing functions in motor and non-motor domains of behaviour. Another functionally relevant feature is that they provide strong inhibitory inputs to their downstream targets. Modulation of the degree of inhibition of thalamic and cortical activities is thought to be relevant for response inhibition functions, limiting cortically initiated behaviours, as well as in action selection or in the scaling of movement parameters. A third functionally important characteristic is that synapses in the major input structure of the basal ganglia, the striatum, were found to be highly modifiable. The strengths of corticostriatal synapses appear to be constantly adjusted to situational demands through the interplay of neuromodulators such as dopamine and acetylcholine, leading to the hypothesis that the basal ganglia are critical for learning functions, specifically for procedural or reward-based learning, or the acquisition of movement sequences. However, several major gaps remain in our understanding of basal ganglia anatomy and function, specifically with regard to their descending (brainstem) projections, and their interactions with other brain regions, such as thalamus or cerebellum.

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