We have analyzed the pathfinding of thalamocortical axons (TCAs) from dorsal thalamus to neocortex in relation to specific cell domains in the forebrain of wild-type and Mash-1-deficient mice. In wild-type mice, we identified four cell domains that constitute the proximal part of the TCA pathway. These domains are distinguished by patterns of gene expression and by the presence of neurons retrogradely labeled from dorsal thalamus. Since the cells that form these domains are generated in forebrain proliferative zones that express high levels of Mash-1, we studied Mash-1 mutant mice to assess the potential roles of these domains in TCA pathfinding. In null mutants, each of the domains is altered: the two Pax-6 domains, one in ventral thalamus and one in hypothalamus, are expanded in size; a complementary RPTP(delta) domain in ventral thalamus is correspondingly reduced and the normally graded expression of RPTP(delta) in that domain is no longer apparent. In ventral telencephalon, a domain characterized in the wild type by Netrin-1 and Nkx-2.1 expression and by retrogradely labeled neurons is absent in the mutant. Defects in TCA pathfinding are localized to the borders of each of these altered domains. Many TCAs fail to enter the expanded, ventral thalamic Pax-6 domain that constitutes the most proximal part of the TCA pathway, and form a dense whorl at the border between dorsal and ventral thalamus. A proportion of TCAs do extend further distally into ventral thalamus, but many of these stall at an aberrant, abrupt border of high RPTP(delta) expression. A small proportion of TCAs extend around the RPTP(delta) domain and reach the ventral thalamic-hypothalamic border, but few of these axons turn at that border to extend into the ventral telencephalon. These findings demonstrate that Mash-1 is required for the normal development of cell domains that in turn are required for normal TCA pathfinding. In addition, these findings support the hypothesis that ventral telencephalic neurons and their axons guide TCAs through ventral thalamus and into ventral telencephalon.

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