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The deepest layer of the cortex (layer 6b [L6b]) contains relatively few neurons, but it is the only cortical layer responsive to the potent wake-promoting neuropeptide orexin/hypocretin. Can these few neurons significantly influence brain state? Here, we show that L6b-photoactivation causes a surprisingly robust enhancement of attention-associated high-gamma oscillations and population spiking while abolishing slow waves in sleep-deprived mice. To explain this powerful impact on brain state, we investigated L6b's synaptic output using optogenetics, electrophysiology, and monoCaTChR ex vivo. We found powerful output in the higher-order thalamus and apical dendrites of L5 pyramidal neurons, via L1a and L5a, as well as in superior colliculus and L6 interneurons. L6b subpopulations with distinct morphologies and short- and long-term plasticities project to these diverse targets. The L1a-targeting subpopulation triggered powerful NMDA-receptor-dependent spikes that elicited burst firing in L5. We conclude that orexin/hypocretin-activated cortical neurons form a multifaceted, fine-tuned circuit for the sustained control of the higher-order thalamocortical system.

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apical dendrite, arousal, attention, corticothalamic projections, gamma oscillations, layer 6b, narcolepsy, orexin/hypocretin, subplate, thalamus