Functions of the neocortex depend on its bidirectional communication with the thalamus, via cortico-thalamo-cortical (CTC) loops. Recent work dissecting the synaptic connectivity in these loops is generating a clearer picture of their cellular organization. Here, we review findings across sensory, motor and cognitive areas, focusing on patterns of cell type-specific synaptic connections between the major types of cortical and thalamic neurons. We outline simple and complex CTC loops, and note features of these loops that appear to be general versus specialized. CTC loops are tightly interlinked with local cortical and corticocortical (CC) circuits, forming extended chains of loops that are probably critical for communication across hierarchically organized cerebral networks. Such CTC–CC loop chains appear to constitute a modular unit of organization, serving as scaffolding for area-specific structural and functional modifications. Inhibitory neurons and circuits are embedded throughout CTC loops, shaping the flow of excitation. We consider recent findings in the context of established CTC and CC circuit models, and highlight current efforts to pinpoint cell type-specific mechanisms in CTC loops involved in consciousness and perception. As pieces of the connectivity puzzle fall increasingly into place, this knowledge can guide further efforts to understand structure–function relationships in CTC loops.
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