The brain is the part of the central nervous system that is contained in the cranial cavity of the skull. It includes the cerebral cortex, limbic system, basal ganglia, thalamus, hypothalamus, cerebellum, brainstem, and retinas. The outermost part of the brain is a thick piece of nervous system tissue called the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex, limbic system, and basal ganglia make up the two cerebral hemispheres. A thick fiber bundle called the corpus callosum (corpus = “body”; callosum = “tough”) connects the two hemispheres. Although there are some brain functions that are localized more to one hemisphere than the other, the functions of the two hemispheres are largely redundant. In fact, sometimes (very rarely) an entire hemisphere is removed to treat severe epilepsy. While patients do suffer some deficits following the surgery, they can have surprisingly few problems, especially when the surgery is performed on children who have very immature nervous systems.
In other surgeries to treat severe epilepsy, the corpus callosum is cut instead of removing an entire hemisphere. This causes a condition called split-brain, which gives insights into unique functions of the two hemispheres. For example, when an object is presented to patients’ left visual field, they may be unable to verbally name the object (and may claim to not have seen an object at all). This is because the visual input from the left visual field crosses and enters the right hemisphere and cannot then signal to the speech center, which generally is found in the left side of the brain. Remarkably, if a split-brain patient is asked to pick up a specific object out of a group of objects with the left hand, the patient will be able to do so but will still be unable to verbally identify it.
Visit the following website(http://openstaxcollege.org/l/split-brain2)to learn more about split-brain patients and to play a game where you can model split-brain experiments yourself.
Each hemisphere contains regions called lobes that are involved in different functions. Each hemisphere of the mammalian cerebral cortex can be broken down into four functionally and spatially defined lobes: frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital (Figure 16.22).
The frontal lobe is located at the front of the brain, over the eyes. This lobe contains the olfactory bulb, which processes smells. The frontal lobe also contains the motor cortex, which is important for planning and implementing movement. Areas within the motor cortex map to different muscle groups. Neurons in the frontal lobe also control cognitive functions like maintaining attention, speech, and decision-making. Studies of humans who have damaged their frontal lobes show that parts of this area are involved in personality, socialization, and assessing risk. The parietal lobe is located at the top of the brain. Neurons in the parietal lobe are involved in speech and also reading. Two of the parietal lobe’s main functions are processing somatosensation—touch sensations like pressure, pain, heat, cold—and processing proprioception—the sense of how parts of the body are oriented in space. The parietal lobe contains a somatosensory map of the body similar to the motor cortex. The occipital lobe is located at the back of the brain. It is primarily involved in vision—seeing, recognizing, and identifying the visual world. The temporal lobe is located at the base of the brain and is primarily involved in processing and interpreting sounds. It also contains the hippocampus(named from the Greek for “seahorse,” which it resembles in shape) a structure that processes memory formation. The role of the hippocampus in memory was partially determined by studying one famous epileptic patient, HM, who had both sides of his hippocampus removed in an attempt to cure his epilepsy. His seizures went away, but he could no longer form new memories (although he could remember some facts from before his surgery and could learn new motor tasks).
Interconnected brain areas called the basal gangla play important roles in movement control and posture. The basal ganglia also regulate motivation.
The thalamus acts as a gateway to and from the cortex. It receives sensory and motor inputs from the body and also receives feedback from the cortex. This feedback mechanism can modulate conscious awareness of sensory and motor inputs depending on the attention and arousal state of the animal. The thalamus helps regulate consciousness, arousal, and sleep states.
Below the thalamus is the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus controls the endocrine system by sending signals to the pituitary gland. Among other functions, the hypothalamus is the body’s thermostat—it makes sure the body temperature is kept at appropriate levels. Neurons within the hypothalamus also regulate circadian rhythms, sometimes called sleep cycles.
The limbic system is a connected set of structures that regulates emotion, as well as behaviors related to fear and motivation. It plays a role in memory formation and includes parts of the thalamus and hypothalamus as well as the hippocampus. One important structure within the limbic system is a temporal lobe structure called the amygdala. The two amygdala (one on each side) are important both for the sensation of fear and for recognizing fearful faces.
The cerebellum(cerebellum = “little brain”) sits at the base of the brain on top of the brainstem. The cerebellum controls balance and aids in coordinating movement and learning new motor tasks. The cerebellum of birds is large compared to other vertebrates because of the coordination required by flight.
The brainstem connects the rest of the brain with the spinal cord and regulates some of the most important and basic functions of the nervous system including breathing, swallowing, digestion, sleeping, walking, and sensory and motor information integration.