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Brain Stem: Function, Anatomy & Definition

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  • 0:02 What Is the Brain Stem?
  • 0:56 What Does the Brain Stem Do?
  • 2:04 Anatomy of the Brain Stem
  • 3:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sharon Linde
The brain stem may sound like something that just holds the brain up, but it actually has a vital role in keeping you alive. This lesson brings you up to date on what you need to know about the brain stem. Read on for details.

What Is the Brain Stem?

Everything you do, from eating to thinking to blinking, is due to your amazing brain. Make each of your hands into a fist and put them side-by-side, knuckles touching. This is approximately the size and shape of your brain. It weighs about three pounds and is a solid mass. The human brain has three major parts: the cerebrum, the cerebellum, and the brain stem. Each has its own unique and important job.

Take a deep breath in, and then let it out. Know what part of your body was behind making that happen? If you guessed your brain stem, you're right! The brain stem is located just under the cerebrum, the large thinking part we usually see and recognize, and in front of the cerebellum, the balance center of the brain. Although each of these three parts of the brain has a unique job, they also work together to help you function.

What Does the Brain Stem Do?

When you hear the word 'stem' you may automatically think of the job of holding something up or some type of support system. Using your fists as a model again, imagine your wrists are the brain stem. Specifically, the brain stem has three main functions:

  1. Connect brain to spinal cord, the tube of nerve fibers and tissue inside the spine. The spinal cord, along with all parts of the brain, is part of the central nervous system. They work to control all actions in your body, both voluntary and involuntary.
  2. Perform functions to help keep you alive. Do you have to think about digesting dinner or increasing the blood flow when you work out? Those are things you do that you're not trying to. The brain stem controls involuntary muscles, or muscles that work without your making a conscious effort. These muscles work automatically and are located in the heart and stomach.
  3. Act as a messenger. Have you ever had to relay information between two people? That's a little like what the brain stem does. It acts as a go-between for the brain and other parts of the body. When you think 'I want to get some water,' your brain stem processes that information and sends signals to your body to get up and go get that water.

Anatomy of the Brain Stem

As mentioned, the brain stem is located at the base of the skull and connects the brain to the spinal cord. It has three main parts: the midbrain, the pons, and the medulla.

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