What to Know About Thalamic Strokes

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on July 13, 2023
4 min read

Deep in the center of your brain, there is a walnut-sized center called the thalamus. Located right next to the brain stem, this tiny part of the brain is very important. Even though this complex part of the brain is very small, having a stroke in the thalamus can have many different health implications for your body.

In addition to having a stroke in the thalamus, you could also suffer from a thalamic infarct. An infarct is when the stroke cuts off oxygen to your tissue to the degree that the tissue dies. Depending on the severity and location within the thalamus, infarcts can present long-lasting and serious consequences.

Generally, the thalamus is responsible for transporting sensory information from the body to the brain. The thalamus plays a role in sleep, wakefulness, learning, and memory. The five main functional components of the thalamus are:

  • Arousal and pain regulation. This part of the thalamus is able to discern what object is creating which brain patterns. Both through memory and the ability to synthesize patterns, the thalamus can interpret sensory information.
  • Sensory experiences. There are parts within the thalamus that regulate every type of sensory information except for smell.
  • Motor language function. Speech and motor functioning are connected. Motor functioning is essential in connecting the planning, expression, and execution of saying an idea out loud.
  • Cognitive function. The thalamus is integral for your overall cognitive functioning. Its decline is directly associated with the natural decay of cognitive functioning while you age. It affects memory, attention, and information processing.
  • Mood and motivation. There are components within the thalamus that are connected to parts of the brain that encompass mood and motivation.

There are two different causes of strokes: a blood clot blocking off blood flow (ischemic) or bleeding of a blood vessel in the thalamus (hemorrhagic).

Ischemic strokes‌

Ischemic strokes happen when a build-up of fatty deposits, blood clots, or other debris move throughout your bloodstream in your body and finally lodge in and clog your brain. There is some preliminary research to suggest that the COVID-19 infection causes ischemic strokes. However, there is still more research to be done.

Hemorrhagic strokes‌

Typically, hemorrhagic strokes occur because of conditions related to the blood vessels.

Similar to other strokes, some risk factors for thalamic strokes and infarcts are:

  • Being overweight
  • Not exercising
  • Alcohol use disorder
  • Taking drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, or Adderall
  • High blood pressure
  • Smoking cigarettes
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Sleep apnea
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Heart failure
  • Heart defects
  • Heart infection
  • Abnormal heart rhythms
  • Family history of strokes, heart attacks
  • COVID-19

In addition to those risk factors, specific demographics of people are more likely to get strokes than others. These demographics are:

  • People over the age of 55
  • African American people
  • Men
  • People who use birth control or hormone therapy

Depending on where the thalamus is damaged, you might experience any of these symptoms:

  • Weakness on one side of the body
  • Issues with vision
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Loss of memory
  • Burning
  • Confusion
  • Problems thinking or with judgment
  • Feelings of agitation
  • Sleepiness

If you feel any of these symptoms, you should immediately go to the hospital.

Thalamic strokes can also present some unique post-stroke health implications. These can include:

  • Issues with speech and talking. Usually, this presents as problems using the correct lexical semantics but quickly goes away.
  • Dejerine-Roussy. This is a rare disease that occurs after a thalamic stroke. It is at first characterized by numbness, then tingling, then pain. This pain can become severe and does not go away without treatment.
  • Generalized spike-wave. This is a phenomenon in the brain that usually precedes things like seizures or epilepsy.
  • Fatal familial insomnia. A hereditary disease that slowly deteriorates the brain. People with this disease get panic attacks, paranoia, and phobias. These symptoms are eventually joined by a complete loss of sleep and hallucinations. Ultimately, people with fatal familial insomnia bring dementia, mutism, and death.

To diagnose your stroke as a thalamic stroke, your medical provider will conduct the following imaging studies:

  • CT scans. These scans use x-ray technology combined with computer scanning. They can craft detailed pictures that show issues with vessels and organs.
  • MRI. These tests can produce images of the inside of your body using radio waves and magnets.

For ischemic strokes or strokes caused by blood clotting, you will be given medication or surgery to undo the blood clotting. However, if you treat the stroke early, you can take a medicine called tPA.

If you have a hemorrhagic stroke, it will be treated with surgery on the bleeding vessel.

The most essential thing to note with treating strokes is that time is of the essence. The less time that elapses between having symptoms and seeking medical treatment, the more your provider will be able to treat you and the more minor symptoms you will have after your stroke.