The brainstem (or brain stem) is the posterior part of the brain, continuous with the spinal cord. In the human brain the brainstem includes the midbrain, and the pons and medulla oblongata of the hindbrain. Sometimes the diencephalon, the caudal part of the forebrain, is included.
The brainstem provides the main motor and sensory nerve supply to the face and neck via the cranial nerves. Of the twelve pairs of cranial nerves, ten pairs come from the brainstem. The brainstem is an extremely important part of the brain as the nerve connections of the motor and sensory systems from the main part of the brain to the rest of the body pass through the brainstem. This includes the corticospinal tract (motor), the dorsal column-medial lemniscus pathway (fine touch, vibration sensation, and proprioception), and the spinothalamic tract (pain, temperature, itch, and crude touch).
The brainstem also plays an important role in the regulation of cardiac and respiratory function. It also regulates the central nervous system, and is pivotal in maintaining consciousness and regulating the sleep cycle. The brainstem has many basic functions including heart rate, breathing, sleeping, and eating.
The three distinct parts of the brainstem are colored in this sagittal section of a human brain.
|Parts||Medulla, Pons, Midbrain|
|Anatomical terms of neuroanatomy|
The midbrain is divided into three parts: tectum, tegmentum, and the ventral tegmentum. The tectum (Latin:roof), which forms the ceiling. The tectum comprises the paired structure of the superior and inferior colliculi and is the dorsal covering of the cerebral aqueduct. The inferior colliculus, is the principal midbrain nucleus of the auditory pathway and receives input from several peripheral brainstem nuclei, as well as inputs from the auditory cortex. Its inferior brachium (arm-like process) reaches to the medial geniculate nucleus of the diencephalon. Superior to the inferior colliculus, the superior colliculus marks the rostral midbrain. It is involved in the special sense of vision and sends its superior brachium to the lateral geniculate body of the diencephalon.
The midbrain consists of:
The pons lies between the medulla oblongata and the midbrain. It contains tracts that carry signals from the cerebrum to the medulla and to the cerebellum and also tracts that carry sensory signals to the thalamus. The pons is connected to the cerebellum by the cerebellar peduncles. The pons houses the respiratory pneumotaxic center and apneustic center that make up the pontine respiratory group in the respiratory center. The pons co-ordinates activities of the cerebellar hemispheres.
The medulla oblongata often just referred to as the medulla, is the lower half of the brainstem continuous with the spinal cord. Its upper part is continuous with the pons. The medulla contains the cardiac, dorsal and ventral respiratory groups, and vasomotor centres, dealing with heart rate, breathing and blood pressure. Another important medullary structure is the area postrema whose functions include the control of vomiting.
In the medial part of the medulla is the anterior median fissure. Moving laterally on each side are the medullary pyramids. The pyramids contain the fibers of the corticospinal tract (also called the pyramidal tract), or the upper motor neuronal axons as they head inferiorly to synapse on lower motor neuronal cell bodies within the anterior grey column of the spinal cord.
The anterolateral sulcus is lateral to the pyramids. Emerging from the anterolateral sulci are the CN XII (hypoglossal nerve) rootlets. Lateral to these rootlets and the anterolateral sulci are the olives. The olives are swellings in the medulla containing underlying inferior nucleary nuclei (containing various nuclei and afferent fibers). Lateral (and dorsal) to the olives are the rootlets for CN IX (glossopharyngeal), CN X (vagus) and CN XI (accessory nerve). The pyramids end at the pontine medulla junction, noted most obviously by the large basal pons. From this junction, CN VI (abducens nerve), CN VII (facial nerve) and CN VIII (vestibulocochlear nerve) emerge. At the level of the midpons, CN V (the trigeminal nerve) emerges. Cranial nerve III (the oculomotor nerve) emerges ventrally from the midbrain, while the CN IV (the trochlear nerve) emerges out from the dorsal aspect of midbrain.
Between the two pyramids can be seen a decussation of fibres which marks the transition from the medulla to the spinal cord. The medulla is above the decussation and the spinal cord below.
The most medial part of the medulla is the posterior median sulcus. Moving laterally on each side is the fasciculus gracilis, and lateral to that is the fasciculus cuneatus. Superior to each of these, and directly inferior to the obex, are the gracile and cuneate tubercles, respectively. Underlying these are their respective nuclei. The obex marks the end of the fourth ventricle and the beginning of the central canal. The posterior intermediate sulcus separates the fasciculus gracilis from the fasciculus cuneatus. Lateral to the fasciculus cuneatus is the lateral funiculus.
Superior to the obex is the floor of the fourth ventricle. In the floor of the fourth ventricle, various nuclei can be visualized by the small bumps that they make in the overlying tissue. In the midline and directly superior to the obex is the vagal trigone and superior to that it the hypoglossal trigone. Underlying each of these are motor nuclei for the respective cranial nerves. Superior to these trigones are fibers running laterally in both directions. These fibers are known collectively as the striae medullares. Continuing in a rostral direction, the large bumps are called the facial colliculi. Each facial colliculus, contrary to their names, do not contain the facial nerve nuclei. Instead, they have facial nerve axons traversing superficial to underlying abducens (CN VI) nuclei. Lateral to all these bumps previously discussed is an indented line, or sulcus that runs rostrally, and is known as the sulcus limitans. This separates the medial motor neurons from the lateral sensory neurons. Lateral to the sulcus limitans is the area of the vestibular system, which is involved in special sensation. Moving rostrally, the inferior, middle, and superior cerebellar peduncles are found connecting the midbrain to the cerebellum. Directly rostral to the superior cerebellar peduncle, there is the superior medullary velum and then the two trochlear nerves. This marks the end of the pons as the inferior colliculus is directly rostral and marks the caudal midbrain. Middle cerebellar peduncle is located inferior and lateral to the superior cerebellar peduncle, connecting pons to the cerebellum. Likewise, inferior cerebellar peduncle is found connecting the medulla oblongata to the cerebellum.
The adult human brainstem emerges from two of the three primary vesicles formed of the neural tube. The mesencephalon is the second of the three primary vesicles, and does not further differentiate into a secondary vesicle. This will become the midbrain. The third primary vesicle, the rhombencephalon (hindbrain) will further differentiate into two secondary vesicles, the metencephalon and the myelencephalon. The metencephalon will become the cerebellum and the pons. The more caudal myelencephalon will become the medulla.
There are three main functions of the brainstem:
Ten of the twelve pairs of cranial nerves either target or are sourced from the brainstem. The nuclei of the oculomotor nerve (III) and trochlear nerve (IV) are located in the midbrain. The nuclei of the trigeminal nerve (V), abducens nerve (VI), facial nerve (VII) and vestibulocochlear nerve (VIII) are located in the pons. The nuclei of the glossopharyngeal nerve (IX), vagus nerve (X), accessory nerve (XI) and hypoglossal nerve (XII) are located in the medulla. The fibers of these cranial nerves exit the brainstem from these nuclei.
Diseases of the brainstem can result in abnormalities in the function of cranial nerves that may lead to visual disturbances, pupil abnormalities, changes in sensation, muscle weakness, hearing problems, vertigo, swallowing and speech difficulty, voice change, and co-ordination problems. Localizing neurological lesions in the brainstem may be very precise, although it relies on a clear understanding on the functions of brainstem anatomical structures and how to test them.
Criteria for claiming brainstem death in the UK have developed in order to make the decision of when to stop ventilation of somebody who could not otherwise sustain life. These determining factors are that the patient is irreversibly unconscious and incapable of breathing unaided. All other possible causes must be ruled out that might otherwise indicate a temporary condition. The state of irreversible brain damage has to be unequivocal. There are brainstem reflexes that are checked for by two senior doctors so that imaging technology is unnecessary. The absence of the cough and gag reflexes, of the corneal reflex and the vestibulo–ocular reflex need to be established; the pupils of the eyes must be fixed and dilated; there must be an absence of motor response to stimulation and an absence of breathing marked by concentrations of carbon dioxide in the arterial blood. All of these tests must be repeated after a certain time before death can be declared.