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The brain stem, The diencephalon, The cerebrum, The cerebellum, Studying the brain

Part of the central nervous system located in the skull. Controls mental and physical actions of the organism.

The brain, with the spinal cord and network of nerves, controls information flow throughout the body, voluntary actions, such as walking, reading, and talking, and involuntary reactions, such as breathing and heartbeat. The human brain is a soft, shiny, grayish white, mushroom-shaped structure. Encased within the skull, the brain of an average adult weight about 3 lb (1.4 kg). At birth, the average human infant's brain weighs 13.7 oz (390 g); by age 15, the brain has nearly reached full adult size. The brain is protected by the skull and by a three-layer membrane called the meninges. Many bright red arteries and bluish veins on the surface of the brain penetrate inward. Glucose, oxygen, and certain ions pass easily from the blood into the brain, whereas other substances, such as antibiotics, do not. The four principal sections of the human brain are the brain stem, the diencephalon, the cerebrum, and the cerebellum.

The brain stem

The brain stem connects the brain with the spinal cord. All the messages that are transmitted between the brain and spinal cord pass through the medulla—a part of the brain stem—via fibers. The fibers on the right side of the medulla cross to the left and those on the left cross to the right. As a result, each side of the brain controls the opposite side of the body. The medulla also controls the heartbeat, the rate of breathing, and the diameter of the blood vessels and helps to coordinate swallowing, vomiting, hiccupping, coughing, and sneezing. Another component of the brain stem is the pons (meaning bridge). It conducts messages between the spinal cord and the rest of the brain, and between the different parts of the brain. Conveying impulses between the cerebral cortex, the pons, and the spinal cord is a section of the brain stem known as the midbrain, which also contains visual and audio reflex centers involving the movement of the eyeballs and head.

Twelve pairs of cranial nerves originate in the underside of the brain, mostly from the brain stem. They leave the skull through openings and extend as peripheral nerves to their destinations. Among these cranial nerves are the olfactory nerves that bring messages about smell and the optic nerves that conduct visual information.

The diencephalon

The diencephalon lies above the brain stem and embodies the thalamus and hypothalamus. The thalamus is an important relay station for sensory information, interpreting sensations of sound, smell, taste, pain, pressure, temperature, and touch; the thalamus also regulates some emotions and memory. The hypothalamus controls a number of body functions, such as heartbeat rate and digestion, and helps regulate the endocrine system and normal body temperature. The hypothalamus interprets hunger and thirst, and it helps regulate sleep, anger, and aggression.

The cerebrum

The cerebrum constitutes nearly 90% of the brain's weight. Specific areas of the cerebrum interpret sensory impulses. For example, spoken and written language are transmitted to a part of the cerebrum called Wernicke's

Comparison of the brains of an earthworm, an insect, a bird, and a human. (Hans & Cassidy. Gale Research. Reproduced with permission.)

area where meaning is extracted. Motor areas of the cerebrum control muscle movements. Broca's area translates thoughts into speech, and coordinates the muscles needed for speaking. Impulses from other motor areas direct hand muscles for writing and eye muscles for physical movement necessary for reading. The cerebrum is divided into two hemispheres—left and right. In general, the left half of the brain controls the right side of the body, and vice versa. For most right-handed people (and many left-handed people as well), the left half of the brain is dominant. By studying patients whose corpus callosum had been destroyed, scientists realized that differences existed between the left and right sides of the cerebral cortex. The left side of the brain functions mainly in speech, logic, writing, and arithmetic. The right side of the brain, on the other hand, is more concerned with imagination, art, symbols, and spatial relations.

The cerebrum's outer layer, the cerebral cortex, is composed of gray matter made up of nerve cell bodies. The cerebral cortex is about 0.08 in (2 mm) thick and its surface area is about 5 sq ft (0.5 sq m)—around half the size of an office desk. White matter, composed of nerve fibers covered with myelin sheaths, lies beneath the gray matter. During embryonic development, the gray matter grows faster than the white matter and folds on itself, giving the brain its characteristic wrinkly appearance. The folds are called convolutions or gyri, and the grooves between them are known as sulci.

A deep fissure separates the cerebrum into a left and right hemisphere, with the corpus callosum, a large bundle of fibers, connecting the two.

The cerebellum

The cerebellum is located below the cerebrum and behind the brain stem. It is butterfly-shaped, with the "wings" known as the cerebellar hemispheres. The cerebellum controls many subconscious activities, such as balance and muscular coordination. Disorders related to damage of the cerebellum are ataxia (problems with coordination), dysarthria (unclear speech resulting from problems controlling the muscles used in speaking), and nystagmus (uncontrollable jerking of the eyeballs). A brain tumor that is relatively common in children known as medullablastoma grows in the cerebellum.

Studying the brain

Researchers have discovered that neurons carry information through the nervous system in the form of brief electrical impulses called action potentials. When an impulse reaches the end of an axon, neurotransmitters are released at junctions called synapses. The neurotransmitters are chemicals that bind to receptors on the receiving neurons, triggering the continuation of the impulse. Fifty different neurotransmitters have been discovered since the first one was identified in 1920. By studying the chemical effects of neurotransmitters in the brain, scientists are developing treatments for mental disorders and are learning more about how drugs affect the brain.

Scientists once believed that brain cells do not regenerate, thereby making brain injuries and brain diseases untreatable. Since the late 1990s, researchers have been testing treatment for such patients with neuron transplants, introducing nerve tissue into the brain. They have also been studying substances, such as nerve growth factor (NGF), that someday could be used to help regrow nerve tissue.

Technology provides useful tools for researching the brain and helping patients with brain disorders. An electroencephalogram (EEG) is a record of brain waves, electrical activity generated in the brain. An EEG is obtained by positioning electrodes on the head and amplifying the waves with an electroencephalograph and is valuable in diagnosing brain diseases such as epilepsy and tumors.

Scientists use three other techniques to study and understand the brain and diagnose disorders:

(1) Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses a magnetic field to display the living brain at various depths as if in slices.

(2) Positron emission tomography (PET) results in color images of the brain displayed on the screen of a monitor. During this test, a technician injects a small amount of a substance, such as glucose, that is marked with a radioactive tag. The marked substance shows where glucose is consumed in the brain. PET is used to study the chemistry and activity of the normal brain and to diagnose abnormalities such as tumors.

(3) Magnetoencephalography (MEG) measures the electromagnetic fields created between neurons as electrochemical information is passed along. When under the machine, if the subject is told, "wiggle your toes," the readout is an instant picture of the brain at work. Concentric colored rings appear on the computer screen that pinpoint the brain signals even before the toes are actually wiggled.

Using an MRI along with MEG, physicians and scientists can look into the brain without using surgery. They foresee that these techniques could help paralysis victims move by supplying information on how to stimulate their muscles or indicating the signals needed to control an artificial limb.

Further Reading

Bear, Mark F., Barry W. Connors, and Michael A. Paradiso. Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1996.

Burstein, John. The Mind by Slim Goodbody. Minneapolis, MN: Fairview Press, 1996.

Carey, Joseph, ed. Brain Facts. Washington, D.C.: Society for Neuroscience, 1993.

Greenfield, Susan A., ed. The Human Mind Explained: An Owner's Guide to the Mysteries of the Mind. New York: Henry Holt, 1996.

Howard, Pierce J. The Owner's Manual for the Brain: Everyday Applications from Mind-Brain Research. Austin, TX: Leornian Press, 1994.

Jackson, Carolyn, ed. How Things Work: The Brain. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1990.

The Mind. Alexandria, VA: PBS Video, 1988. (Series of nine 1-hour videocassettes.)

The Nature of the Nerve Impulse. Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 1994-95. (Videocassette.)

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Abacus to Courage