Impairments in response inhibition and salience attribution (iRISA) have been proposed to underlie the clinical symptoms of drug addiction as mediated by cortico-striatal-thalamo-cortical networks. The bulk of evidence supporting the iRISA model comes from neuroimaging research that has focused on cortical and striatal influences with less emphasis on the role of the thalamus. Here, we highlight the importance of the thalamus in drug addiction, focusing on animal literature findings on thalamic nuclei in the context of drug-seeking, structural and functional changes of the thalamus as measured by imaging studies in human drug addiction, particularly during drug cue and non-drug reward processing, and response inhibition tasks. Findings from the animal literature suggest that the paraventricular nucleus of the thalamus, the lateral habenula and the mediodorsal nucleus may be involved in the reinstatement, extinction and expression of drug-seeking behaviours. In support of the iRISA model, the human addiction imaging literature demonstrates enhanced thalamus activation when reacting to drug cues and reduced thalamus activation during response inhibition. This pattern of response was further associated with the severity of, and relapse in, drug addiction. Future animal studies could widen their field of focus by investigating the specific role(s) of different thalamic nuclei in different phases of the addiction cycle. Similarly, future human imaging studies should aim to specifically delineate the structure and function of different thalamic nuclei, for example, through the application of advanced imaging protocols at higher magnetic fields (7 Tesla).

Original languageEnglish
Article number20170028
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1742
StatePublished - 19 Mar 2018


  • Cue reactivity
  • Drug self-administration
  • Functional MRI
  • Response inhibition
  • Substance use disorders
  • Thalamus


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