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The Hindbrain: Definition, Structures & Function

The Hindbrain: Definition, Structures & Function
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  • 0:00 What is the Hindbrain?
  • 1:15 Structures of the Hindbrain
  • 4:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Phenix
In this lesson, we'll learn about our 'reptilian' brain, known as the hindbrain. We'll explore what structures compose the hindbrain, as well as what vital processes of the human body it controls.

What is the Hindbrain?

Have you ever heard anyone refer to the 'reptilian' portion of the human brain? If not, you might now have visions of Godzilla dancing in your head and the funny thing is, you wouldn't be too far off the mark. What the term really refers to is the oldest (evolutionarily speaking) portion of our brains, which we actually share (structurally) with reptiles. Scientists refer to this 'reptilian' portion as the hindbrain; in other words, the rear portion of the brain.

The hindbrain is the region of the brain formed by the pons, medulla oblongata (also known as just the medulla), and the cerebellum. Together, these three structures govern our autonomic, or 'automated' body systems, controlling everything from our heart, breathing, and sleep patterns to our bladder function, sense of equilibrium, and fine motor control.

Basically, the hindbrain controls all the things that you want to automatically work without having to think about them. Can you imagine having to remind your heart to beat or consciously adjust your sense of balance? And what if you forgot? For your sense of balance, you might just become clumsy and trip, but your heart? That one would be a doozy!

Structures of the Hindbrain

As mentioned, the hindbrain is comprised of the pons, medulla, and cerebellar structures of your brain, which together essentially act as the 'commander in charge' of your automated systems (talk about an important job!). Let's take a moment to explore each of these structures and their role within the grand scheme of the hindbrain.

The Brainstem

The pons is the first major bulb (or bulge) of a larger structure called the brainstem, which is so named because it literally 'stems' from the base of the brain and is created by the joined pons and medulla. The pons, being the 'head' of the brainstem, bridges the brain with the cerebellum, which is actually where its name comes from; 'pons' means 'bridge'. The medulla oblongata forms the base of the brainstem and is the 'middle' (medulla) oblong (oblongata) bulge between the pons and spinal cord.

The pons and medulla are important because they're the points of origination for eight of our 12 pairs of cranial nerves nerves that directly exit the cranium rather than the spinal cord. The pons controls cranial nerves 5-8, while the medulla controls 9-12. Just like a musical conductor unites the efforts of different instrumental sections into one harmonious musical 'body', the pons and the medulla unite the functions of your cranial nerves into the harmonious functioning of your body.

The pons controls:

  • Facial sensation and the ability to bite, chew and swallow
  • Eye rotations away from the center of your body
  • Facial expressions and facial movements
  • Transmission of sound from your ears to your brain
  • Breathing functions such as breath intensity and frequency and
  • Accessory roles in sleep patterns and your sense of equilibrium and posture

The medulla controls:

  • Cardiac rate, patterns, and rhythms
  • Breathing rhythms
  • Vasometrics (dilation and contraction of blood vessels)
  • Reflex actions such as coughing, sneezing, swallowing, and vomiting

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