The Parts of the Brain

The human brain is not only one of the most important organs in the human body; it is also the most complex. The brain is made up of billions of neurons and that it also has a number of specialized parts that are each involved in important functions.

While there is still a great deal that researchers do not yet know about the brain, they have learned a great deal about the anatomy and function of the brain. Understanding these parts can help give people a better idea of how disease and damage may affect the brain and its ability to function.

The Cerebral Cortex

Brain arteries
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The cerebral cortex is the part of the brain that makes human beings unique. Functions that originate in the cerebral cortex include:

  • Consciousness
  • Higher-order thinking
  • Imagination
  • Information-processing
  • Language
  • Memory
  • Perception
  • Reasoning
  • Sensation
  • Voluntary physical action

The cerebral cortex is what we see when we look at the brain. It is the outermost portion that can be divided into four lobes.

Each bump on the surface of the brain is known as a gyrus, while each groove is known as a sulcus.

The Four Lobes

Human brain regions, illustration
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The cerebral cortex can be divided into four sections, which are known as lobes. The frontal lobe, parietal lobe, occipital lobe, and temporal lobe have been associated with different functions ranging from reasoning to auditory perception.

Frontal Lobe

This lobe is located at the front of the brain and is associated with reasoning, motor skills, higher level cognition, and expressive language. At the back of the frontal lobe, near the central sulcus, lies the motor cortex.

The motor cortex receives information from various lobes of the brain and utilizes this information to carry out body movements. Damage to the frontal lobe can lead to changes in sexual habits, socialization, and attention as well as increased risk-taking.

Parietal Lobe

The parietal lobe is located in the middle section of the brain and is associated with processing tactile sensory information such as pressure, touch, and pain. A portion of the brain known as the somatosensory cortex is located in this lobe and is essential to the processing of the body's senses. 

Temporal Lobe

The temporal lobe is located on the bottom section of the brain. This lobe is also the location of the primary auditory cortex, which is important for interpreting sounds and the language we hear.

The hippocampus is also located in the temporal lobe, which is why this portion of the brain is also heavily associated with the formation of memories. Damage to the temporal lobe can lead to problems with memory, speech perception, and language skills.

Occipital Lobe

The occipital lobe is located at the back portion of the brain and is associated with interpreting visual stimuli and information. The primary visual cortex, which receives and interprets information from the retinas of the eyes, is located in the occipital lobe.

Damage to this lobe can cause visual problems such as difficulty recognizing objects, an inability to identify colors, and trouble recognizing words.

The Brain Stem

Human midbrain with spinal cord, illustration
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The brainstem is an area located at the base of the brain that contains structures vital for involuntary functions such as the heartbeat and breathing. The brain stem is comprised of the midbrain, pons, and medulla.

Midbrain

The midbrain is often considered the smallest region of the brain. It acts as a sort of relay station for auditory and visual information. The midbrain controls many important functions such as the visual and auditory systems as well as eye movement.

Portions of the midbrain called the red nucleus and the substantia nigra are involved in the control of body movement. The darkly pigmented substantia nigra contains a large number of dopamine-producing neurons are located.

The degeneration of neurons in the substantia nigra is associated with Parkinson’s disease.

Medulla

The medulla is located directly above the spinal cord in the lower part of the brain stem and controls many vital autonomic functions such as heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure.

Pons

The pons connects the cerebral cortex to the medulla and to the cerebellum and serves a number of important functions including playing a role in several autonomic functions such as stimulating breathing and controlling sleep cycles.

The Cerebellum

Cerebellum
Image by Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, and Technology(MEXT) Integrated Database Project

Sometimes referred to as the ​"little brain," the cerebellum lies on top of the pons behind the brain stem. The cerebellum is comprised of small lobes and serves a number of important functions including:

  • It receives information from the balance system of the inner ear, sensory nerves, and the auditory and visual systems. It is involved in the coordination of movements as well as motor learning.
  • It is also associated with motor movement and control, but this is not because the motor commands originate here. Instead, the cerebellum serves to modify these signals and make motor movements accurate and useful.
  • The cerebellum helps control posture, balance, and the coordination of voluntary movements. This allows different muscle groups in the body to act together and produce coordinated fluid movement.
  • In addition to playing an essential role in motor control, the cerebellum is also important in certain cognitive functions including speech.

The cerebellum makes up approximately 10% of the brain's total size, but it accounts for more than 50% of the total number of neurons located in the entire brain.

The Limbic System

Image by Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, and Technology(MEXT) Integrated Database Project

Although there is no totally agreed-upon list of the structures that make up the limbic system, four of the main regions include:

The Hypothalamus

The hypothalamus is a grouping of nuclei that lie along the base of the brain near the pituitary gland. The hypothalamus connects with many other regions of the brain and is responsible for controlling hunger, thirst, emotions, body temperature regulation, and circadian rhythms.

The hypothalamus also controls the pituitary gland by secreting hormones. This gives the hypothalamus a great deal of control over many body functions.

The Amygdala

The amygdala is a cluster of nuclei located close to the base of the brain that is primarily involved in functions including memory, emotion, and the body's fight-or-flight response. The structure processes external stimuli and then relays that information to the hippocampus, which can then prompt a response to deal with outside threats.

The Thalamus

Located above the brainstem, the thalamus processes and transmits movement and sensory information. It is essentially a relay station, taking in sensory information and then passing it on to the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex also sends information to the thalamus, which then sends this information to other systems.

The Hippocampus

The hippocampus is a structure located in the temporal lobe. It is important in memory and learning and is sometimes considered to be part of the limbic system because it plays an important part in the control of emotional responses. It plays a role in the body's fight-or-flight response and in the recall and regulation of emotional memories.

Brain Conditions

The brain can also be affected by a number of conditions and by damage. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, there are more than 600 types of neurological diseases. Some of the things that can affect the brain and its function include:

  • Brain tumors
  • Cerebrovascular diseases such as stroke and vascular dementia
  • Convulsive disorders such as epilepsy
  • Degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease
  • Developmental disorders such as cerebral palsy
  • Infection diseases such as AIDS dementia
  • Metabolic diseases such as Gaucher's disease
  • Neurogenetic diseases including Huntington's disease and muscular dystrophy
  • Trauma such as head injury and spinal cord injury

By studying the brain and learning more about its anatomy and function, researchers are able to develop new treatments and preventative strategies for conditions that affect the brain.

Protecting Your Brain

There are things that you can do to help protect the health of your brain. Some strategies you can try:

Exercise

Research suggests that regular physical activity is essential for brain health. Studies have found, for example, that exercise can help delay brain aging as well as degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis. It is also associated with improvements in cognitive abilities and memory.

Rest

Sleep can also play a pivotal role in brain health and mental well-being. Studies have found that sleep can actually play a role in the development and maintenance of some psychiatric conditions including anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder.

Stay Mentally Active

Evidence also suggests that staying mentally engaged can also play an important role in protecting your brain from some degenerative conditions. Activities that may help include learning new things and staying socially active.

A Word From Verywell

The human brain is remarkably complex and researchers are still working toward understanding many of the mysteries of how the mind works. By better understanding how different parts of the brain function, you can also better appreciate how disease or injury may impact certain functions. If you think that you are experiencing symptoms of a brain condition, you should talk to your doctor for further evaluation.

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Additional Reading
  • Carter, R. The Human Brain Book. New York: Penguin; 2014.
  • Kalat, JW. Biological Psychology. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning; 2016.