The nervous system is your body's decision and communication center. The central nervous system (CNS) is made of the brain and the spinal cord and the peripheral nervous system (PNS) is made of nerves. Together they control every part of your daily life, from breathing and blinking to helping you memorize facts for a test. Nerves reach from your brain to your face, ears, eyes, nose, and spinal cord… and from the spinal cord to the rest of your body. Sensory nerves gather information from the environment, send that info to the spinal cord, which then speed the message to the brain. The brain then makes sense of that message and fires off a response. Motor neurons deliver the instructions from the brain to the rest of your body. The spinal cord, made of a bundle of nerves running up and down the spine, is similar to a superhighway, speeding messages to and from the brain at every second.
The brain is made of three main parts: the forebrain, midbrain, and hindbrain. The forebrain consists of the cerebrum, thalamus, and hypothalamus (part of the limbic system). The midbrain consists of the tectum and tegmentum. The hindbrain is made of the cerebellum, pons and medulla. Often the midbrain, pons, and medulla are referred to together as the brainstem.
The cerebrum or cortex is the largest part of the human brain, associated with higher brain function such as thought and action. The cerebral cortex is divided into four sections, called “lobes”: the frontal lobe, parietal lobe, occipital lobe, and temporal lobe. Here is a visual representation of the cortex:
What do each of these lobes do?
Note that the cerebral cortex is highly wrinkled. Essentially this makes the brain more efficient, because it can increase the surface area of the brain and the amount of neurons within it. We will discuss the relevance of the degree of cortical folding (or gyrencephalization) later. (Go here for more information about cortical folding)
A deep furrow divides the cerebrum into two halves, known as the left and right hemispheres. The two hemispheres look mostly symmetrical yet it has been shown that each side functions slightly different than the other. Sometimes the right hemisphere is associated with creativity and the left hemispheres is associated with logic abilities. The corpus callosum is a large bundle of axons which connects the two cerebral hemispheres. It disseminates information from the cerebral cortex on one side of the brain to the same region on the other side.
Nerve cells make up the gray surface of the cerebrum which is a little thicker than your thumb. White nerve fibers underneath carry signals between the nerve cells and other parts of the brain and body.
The neocortex occupies the bulk of the cerebrum. This is a six-layered structure of the cerebral cortex which is only found in mammals. It is thought that the neocortex is a recently evolved structure, and is associated with “higher” information processing by more fully evolved animals (such as humans, primates, dolphins, etc).
The cerebellum, or “little brain”, is similar to the cerebrum in that it has two hemispheres and has a highly folded surface or cortex. This structure is associated with regulation and coordination of movement, posture, and balance.
The cerebellum is assumed to be much older than the cerebrum, evolutionarily. What do I mean by this? In other words, animals which scientists assume to have evolved prior to humans, for example reptiles, do have developed cerebellums. However, reptiles do not have neocortex. Go here for more discussion of the neocortex or go to the following web site for a more detailed look at evolution of brain structures and intelligence: “Ask the Experts”: Evolution and Intelligence
The limbic system, often referred to as the “emotional brain”, is found buried within the cerebrum. Like the cerebellum, evolutionarily the structure is rather old.
This system contains the thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala, and hippocampus. Here is a visual representation of this system, from a midsagittal view of the human brain:
Thalamus - a large mass of gray matter deeply situated in the forebrain at the topmost portion of the diencephalon. The structure has sensory and motor functions. Almost all sensory information enters this structure where neurons send that information to the overlying cortex. Axons from every sensory system (except olfaction) synapse here as the last relay site before the information reaches the cerebral cortex.
Hypothalamus - part of the diencephalon, ventral to the thalamus. The structure is involved in functions including homeostasis, emotion, thirst, hunger, circadian rhythms, and control of the autonomic nervous system. In addition, it controls the pituitary.
Amygdala - part of the telencephalon, located in the temporal lobe; involved in memory, emotion, and fear. The amygdala is both large and just beneath the surface of the front, medial part of the temporal lobe where it causes the bulge on the surface called the uncus. This is a component of the limbic system.
Hippocampus - the portion of the cerebral hemisphers in basal medial part of the temporal lobe. This part of the brain is important for learning and memory . . . for converting short term memory to more permanent memory, and for recalling spatial relationships in the world about us
Underneath the limbic system is the brain stem. This structure is responsible for basic vital life functions such as breathing, heartbeat, and blood pressure. Scientists say that this is the “simplest” part of human brains because animals' entire brains, such as reptiles (who appear early on the evolutionary scale) resemble our brain stem. Look at a good example of this here.
The brain stem is made of the midbrain, pons, and medulla.
Midbrain/Mesencephalon - the rostral part of the brain stem, which includes the tectum and tegmentum. It is involved in functions such as vision, hearing, eyemovement, and body movement. The anterior part has the cerebral peduncle, which is a huge bundle of axons traveling from the cerebral cortex through the brain stem and these fibers (along with other structures) are important for voluntary motor function.
Pons - part of the metencephalon in the hindbrain. It is involved in motor control and sensory analysis… for example, information from the ear first enters the brain in the pons. It has parts that are important for the level of consciousness and for sleep. Some structures within the pons are linked to the cerebellum, thus are involved in movement and posture.
Medulla Oblongata- this structure is the caudal-most part of the brain stem, between the pons and spinal cord. It is responsible for maintaining vital body functions, such as breathing and heartrate.