BACKGROUND: Several studies in patients with schizophrenia have demonstrated an abnormal thalamic volume and thalamocortical connectivity. Specifically, hyperconnectivity with somatosensory areas has been related to the presence of auditory hallucinations (AHs). The 22q11.2 deletion syndrome is a neurogenetic disorder conferring proneness to develop schizophrenia, and deletion carriers (22qdel carriers) experience hallucinations to a greater extent than the general population.
METHODS: We acquired 442 consecutive magnetic resonance imaging scans from 120 22qdel carriers and 110 control subjects every 3 years (age range: 8-35 years). The volume of thalamic nuclei was obtained with FreeSurfer and was compared between 22qdel carriers and control subjects and between 22qdel carriers with and without AHs. In a subgroup of 76 22qdel carriers, we evaluated the functional connectivity between thalamic nuclei affected in patients experiencing AHs and cortical regions.
RESULTS: As compared with control subjects, 22qdel carriers had lower and higher volumes of nuclei involved in sensory processing and cognitive functions, respectively. 22qdel carriers with AHs had a smaller volume of the medial geniculate nucleus, with deviant trajectories showing a steeper volume decrease from childhood with respect to those without AHs. Moreover, we showed an aberrant development of nuclei intercalated between the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus (the anteroventral and medioventral reuniens nuclei) and hyperconnectivity of the medial geniculate nucleus and anteroventral nucleus with the auditory cortex and Wernicke's area.
CONCLUSIONS: The increased connectivity of the medial geniculate nucleus and anteroventral nucleus to the auditory cortex might be interpreted as a lack of maturation of thalamocortical connectivity. Overall, our findings point toward an aberrant development of thalamic nuclei and an immature pattern of connectivity with temporal regions in relation to AHs.