An Introduction to and Overview of the Brain
The human brain is a wondrous thing. It is the single most complex organ on the planet. It sits atop the spinal cord. Gazing upon the brain, one sees four main distinct areas – two roughly symmetrical hemispheres, a cerebellum stuck up underneath the posterior part of the brain, and a brainstem sticking out and down from the middle of the brain. Each cerebral hemisphere is divided into four visible lobes: frontal, temporal, parietal, and occipital. The frontal lobes jut out at nearly a 90 degree angle from the spinal cord and are the largest part of the human brain. The temporal lobes stick out the sides of the brain, like thumbs pointing forward at the side of a fist. The parietal lobes are harder to distinguish. They are just posterior to the frontal lobes and dorsal to (above) the temporal lobes. The occipital lobes are at the very back of the brain, like a caboose on a train.
The outside of the brain is covered with a series of bumps and grooves. The bumps are called gyri (sing. gyrus) whereas the grooves are called sulci (sing. sulcus). This outside part of the brain is filled with tiny cell bodies of neurons, the main functional cell of the brain. Some people estimate that there are 100 billion neurons in the central nervous system (brain + spinal cord). This outer layer of the brain is called the cortex (which means “bark”). The cortex is only about 5mm thick, or about the thickness of a stack of 50 sheets of copy paper, yet it is responsible for much of the processing of information in the brain.
At room temperature the brain is the consistency of warm cream cheese. If removed from the skull and placed on a table, it would flatten and widen out a bit, like jello that is warming up. The brain is encased in a series of protective sheaths called meninges. The outermost encasing is called the dura mater (L. “tough mother”), which is thick and tough and is attached to the skull. The next layer in is softer. It is called the arachnoid layer; it adheres to the brain. Just underneath this layer is where cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) flows. This fluid is produced in holes in the middle of the brain called ventricles. CSF helps cushion the brain as well as remove waste products from the brain. Underneath this is a very thin and fine layer called the pia mater (L. “soft mother”), which adheres directly to the cortex and is difficult or impossible to remove without damaging the cortex. These three layers of meninges serve to protect the brain.
The brain can be roughly split into three functional areas, each one more “advanced” than the previous. The brainstem (and midbrain), which includes such structures as the medulla, pons, and thalamus, activates and regulates the general arousal of the cortex. Damage to the brainstem often results in coma or death. The next rough functional area is the posterior portion of the brain (parietal and occipital lobes and portions of the temporal lobes). This area is heavily involved in sensory processing – touch, vision, hearing. It sends information to other parts of the brain largely through the midbrain structures. The last functional area includes the frontal lobes. This area can regulate all other parts of the brain but is essential for goal-setting, behavior inhibition, motor movements, and language. The frontal lobes are the most advanced area of the brain and arguably the most important for human functioning – for what makes us human. In summary the three areas roughly are responsible for:
- Overall arousal and regulation
- Sensory input
- Output, control, and planning
Underneath the cortex is a large area of the brain that looks white. This area is comprised of the axons of the neurons of the cortex and subcortical structures. These axons are the pathways between neurons – like superhighways connecting cities. The axons look white because the majority are covered with a fatty tissue called myelin. Myelin helps axons work more efficiently and transmit more quickly. The white matter of the brain is as important for normal brain functioning as the gray (neurons) matter is.
The brain is energy-hungry. It cannot store energy so it needs a constant supply of nutrients from blood. However, blood itself is toxic to neurons so the brain has to protect itself from the blood through what is called the blood-brain barrier. This barrier keeps blood cells out of the brain but allows molecules of nutrients (e.g., glucose) to pass into or feed the cells. The entire surface of the brain is covered with blood vessels, with many smaller vessels penetrating deep into the brain to feed the subcortical structures. Deoxygenated blood must be removed from the brain. Veins take the blood out of the brain and drain into venous sinuses, which are part of the dura matter.
The brain works as a whole to help us sense, perceive, interact with, and understand our world around us. It is beautiful in its form and function.
Image: Bi Sang by Seung Ji Baek