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What is the Medulla? - Definition, Function & Location

What is the Medulla? - Definition, Function & Location
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  • 0:01 Medulla at Work
  • 0:54 Location & Function
  • 1:54 ANS Control
  • 2:49 Cranial Nerves
  • 4:32 Motor Functions
  • 5:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Phenix
In this lesson, we'll learn about the medulla oblongata, which plays a major role in controlling many of the automated functions of your body. We'll also explore how its placement leads to it playing many important accessory roles within the sending and receiving pathway of the nervous system.

The Medulla at Work

Imagine this…you're walking through the Alaskan woods one beautiful day when you come around a corner, and Bam! You find yourself face-to-face with an enormous Kodiak bear! You might not realize it (probably because you're too concerned with the 1,500-pound bear standing in front of you), but your body jumps right into action.

Your heartbeat quickens to pump the extra oxygen (which your quickened breathing is now taking in) to your muscles so you can make a 'fight' (truly not recommended) or 'flight' decision. And, what's more, you have totally forgotten that urgent need to go to the bathroom that you had three seconds before meeting Yogi's giant cousin (thank goodness--what a terrible time to be stuck doing a bathroom dance!). All of these responses are due to your autonomic nervous system (ANS), which is, in part, controlled by your medulla oblongata. Thanks, medulla!

Location

The medulla oblongata, also known just as the medulla, is part of your brainstem, which is literally the stem that extends from your brain. The medulla sits below the pons and above the spinal cord and is a major relay point for information going to and from your brain and spinal cord. In fact, its 'middle-man' position is actually reflected in its name, which means 'elongated' or 'oblong' (oblongata) 'middle' (medulla).

The medulla oblongata isn't just any run-of-the-mill middleman, though. In truth, the 'upper-management' of your brain couldn't function without this middleman coming to work every day to send messages back and forth between your brain and your body.

Function

So, what exactly does the medulla oblongata do? It's sort of a big answer. Your medulla directly controls many ANS responses, in addition to playing an accessory role in the control of certain areas of your body. It also has a stake in your overall major motor functions, or body movement. Let's take a moment to explore each of these functions in detail.

ANS Control

Your autonomic nervous system--in other words, your 'automated' nervous system--automatically responds to the situation you're in without you needing to think about it. It controls everything from the dilation of your pupils to your breathing pattern, heart contractions, and need to go to the bathroom. Can you imagine having to think about making all of those things happen, in the right order, at the right speed, and in a consistent pattern that considers your body's needs at the time? Yikes!

In addition to the functions already outlined, your medulla controls the following autonomic reflexes:

  • Blood vessel dilation to increase or decrease oxygen flow and respond to heart functions
  • Digestion to turn on or off digestion during 'fight or flight' scenarios
  • Sneezing and coughing to dispel foreign particles from your nose
  • Swallowing and vomiting to get rid of anything, such as bacteria, pathogens, or poisons that could harm you

Cranial Nerves

You have 12 pairs of cranial nerves, which control everything from the movements and reflexes of your eyes to your sense of smell, tongue movement, and sense of balance. These nerves leave your central nervous system at various locations.

The last seven pair of cranial nerves originate at either the junction between the pons and the medulla or directly through the medulla itself, meaning the medulla either plays an accessory role in conducting those signals or a direct role in controlling them. As a result, any damage to your medulla could result in damage to these nerves, which include the following:

6. The abducens nerve, which controls the muscles that 'abducts' your eyes, or rotates them away from the centerline of your body.

7. The facial nerve, which controls all your facial muscles.

8. The vestibulocochlear nerve, which transmits sound and a sense of equilibrium from your ear to your brain.

9. The glossopharyngeal nerve, which receives sensations and sends motor signals to the tongue and pharynx. This nerve also enables sense of taste and pharyngeal contractions for actions such as swallowing and interacts with your inner ear. This is one of the three nerves that plays a direct role in the medulla's ANS control of swallowing, coughing, sneezing, and vomiting.

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