The brain stem is located in the lowest region of the brain, beneath the forebrain (the cerebral cortex, or the part of the brain most people visualize) and next to the cerebellum. The brain stem, as part of its location, connects all parts of the central nervous system: the cerebral cortex, the cerebellum, and the spinal cord.
As a result, all information relayed between the brain and the rest of the body passes through the brain stem. This information travels along a part of the nervous system known as “the long tracts.” These two highways within the central nervous system are known as the Motor Tract and the Somatosensory Tract.
Each tract carries information from the body’s nerves to the cerebral cortex about the body’s position, pain / pressure levels, environmental temperature, and more. It is in the brain stem that they both send information to the brain and receive “orders” (as we’ve said before, the frontal lobe is the CEO of the brain—using that metaphor, perhaps the brain stem is its “Chief Operations Officer”).
The brain stem serves multiple functions, but its main function is to regulate the autonomic, most fundamental functions of the brain—regulating heart rate, controlling reflexes, breathing, and consciousness. This is accomplished through the brain stem’s 3 regions: the Midbrain, the Pons, and the Medulla Oblongata.
Each of the 3 sections correspond to a different set of functions. The Midbrain, for example, relays information from the eyes and ears. It also controls involuntary eye movement and reflexes related to visual and audio information—which includes the ability to wake us up from our sleep.
The Pons (the middle section of the brain stem) relays information between the cerebral cortex and cerebellum, as this is where the cerebellum is attached to the brain. It also integrates and relays information from the inner ear, controlling your sense of balance. The Pons (as we’ll mention a little later) is also responsible for facial sensitivity.
The lowest part of the brain stem, the Medulla Oblongata, connects the spinal cord to the brain. It is also where the body’s reflex functions (as well as its vital centers) are regulated. The Medulla specifically regulates breathing, heart rate, and sleeping. Reflexive actions such as coughing, sneezing, and vomiting are controlled by the Medulla as well.
Another crucial function of the brain stem is it is where the cranial nerves are located. There are 12 pairs of cranial nerves in the body, and most of them appear in the brain stem. These nerve pairs receive and send out information about the head, face, throat, jaw, and neck.
The brain stem handles all types of information and signals from these regions, including:
In many ways, the brain stem acts as a sort of sub-brain for the head and neck, receiving and regulating the information received by the receptors in the jaw, throat, and face.
As long as the injury is caught early, brain stem injury is highly treatable. Virtually any exercise or therapy would affect or strengthen the brain stem’s function, as virtually all nerve information passes through it. Specific therapies involving movement, visual exercises, or sound cues can pinpoint damage to specific areas of the brain stem and address them effectively.
The clinical neurologists at Plasticity Brain Centers can diagnose brain stem problems precisely and quickly through a full suite of diagnostic therapies and tools. Once the brain stem’s obstacles and injuries are located, our team develops a custom therapy regimen to rebuild or create new neural pathways to establish better reflexes and better regulate the body’s ability to breathe, sleep, and maintain its heart rate.