The thalamus has traditionally been considered as only a relay source of cortical inputs, with hierarchically organized cortical circuits serially transforming thalamic signals to cognitively relevant representations. Given the absence of local excitatory connections within the thalamus, the notion of thalamic relay seemed like a reasonable description over the past several decades. Recent advances in experimental approaches and theory provide a broader perspective on the role of the thalamus in cognitively relevant cortical computations and suggest that only a subset of thalamic circuit motifs fits the relay description. Here, we discuss this perspective and highlight the potential role for the thalamus, and specifically the mediodorsal (MD) nucleus, in the dynamic selection of cortical representations through a combination of intrinsic thalamic computations and output signals that change cortical network functional parameters. We suggest that through the contextual modulation of cortical computation, the thalamus and cortex jointly optimize the information and cost trade-off in an emergent fashion. We emphasize that coordinated experimental and theoretical efforts will provide a path to understanding the role of the thalamus in cognition, along with an understanding to augment cognitive capacity in health and disease.

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