brain

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

brain

brain, the supervisory center of the nervous system in all vertebrates. It also serves as the site of emotions, memory, self-awareness, and thought.

Anatomy and Function

Occupying the skull cavity (cranium), the adult human brain normally weighs from 21/4 to 31/4 lb (1–1.5 kg). Differences in weight and size do not correlate with differences in mental ability; an elephant's brain weighs more than four times that of a human. In invertebrates a group of ganglia or even a single ganglion may serve as a rudimentary brain.

By means of electrochemical impulses the brain directly controls conscious or voluntary behavior, such as walking and thinking. It also monitors, through feedback circuitry, most involuntary behavior—connections with the autonomic nervous system enable the brain to adjust heartbeat, blood pressure, fluid balance, posture, and other functions—and influences automatic activities of the internal organs. There are no pain receptors in brain tissue. A headache is felt because of sensory impulses coming chiefly from the meninges or scalp.

Anatomically the brain has three major parts, the hindbrain (including the cerebellum and the brain stem), the midbrain, and the forebrain (including the diencephalon and the cerebrum). Every brain area has an associated function, although many functions may involve a number of different areas. The cerebellum coordinates muscular movements and, along with the midbrain, monitors posture. The brain stem, which incorporates the medulla and the pons, monitors involuntary activities such as breathing and vomiting.

The thalamus, which forms the major part of the diencephalon, receives incoming sensory impulses and routes them to the appropriate higher centers. The hypothalamus, occupying the rest of the diencephalon, regulates heartbeat, body temperature, and fluid balance. Above the thalamus extends the corpus callosum, a neuron-rich membrane connecting the two hemispheres of the cerebrum.

The cerebrum, occupying the topmost portion of the skull, is by far the largest sector of the brain. Split vertically into left and right hemispheres, it appears deeply fissured and grooved. Its upper surface, the cerebral cortex, contains most of the master controls of the body. In the cortex ultimate analysis of sensory data occurs, and motor impulses originate that initiate, reinforce, or inhibit the entire spectrum of muscle and gland activity. The parts of the cerebrum intercommunicate through association tracts consisting of connector neurons. Association neurons account for approximately half of the total number of nerve cells in the brain. The tracts are believed to be involved with reasoning, learning, and memory. The left half of the cerebrum controls the right side of the body; the right half controls the left side.

Other important parts of the brain include the pituitary gland, the basal ganglia, and the reticular activating system (RAS). The pituitary participates in growth regulation. The basal ganglia, located just above the diencephalon in each cerebral hemisphere, handle coordination and habitual but acquired skills like chewing and playing the piano. The RAS forms a special system of nerve cells linking the medulla, pons, midbrain, and cerebral cortex. The RAS functions as a sentry. In a noisy crowd, for example, the RAS alerts a person when a friend speaks and enables that person to ignore other sounds.

Nerve fibers in the brain are sheathed in a near-white substance called myelin and form the white matter of the brain. Nerve cell bodies, which are not covered by myelin sheaths, form the gray matter. The billions of nerve cells in the brain are structurally supported by the hairlike filaments of glial cells. Smaller than nerve cells and ten times as numerous, the glia account for an estimated half of the brain's weight. Cranial blood vessels in the brain have certain selective permiability characteristics that largely constitute the "blood-brain barrier." The entire brain is enveloped in three protective sheets known as the meninges, continuations of the membranes that wrap the spinal cord. The two inner sheets enclose a shock-absorbing cushion of cerebrospinal fluid.

Neural Pathways

Sensory nerve cells feed information to the brain from every part of the body, external and internal. The brain evaluates the data, then sends directives through the motor nerve cells to muscles and glands, causing them to take suitable action. Alternatively, the brain may inhibit action, as when a person tries not to laugh or cry, or it may simply store the information for later use. Both incoming information and outgoing commands traverse the brain and the rest of the nervous system in the form of electrochemical impulses.

The human brain consists of some 10 billion interconnected nerve cells with innumerable extensions. This interlacing of nerve fibers and their junctions allows a nerve impulse to follow any of a virtually unlimited number of pathways. The effect is to give humans a seemingly infinite variety of responses to sensory input, which may depend upon experience, mood, or any of numerous other factors. During both sleep and consciousness, the ceaseless electrochemical activity in the brain generates brain waves that can be electronically detected and recorded (see electroencephalography).

Research

Brain research, now often referred to as a part of neuropsychology, cognitive science, psychobiology, or other similar fields, has become much more active in recent years. Aided largely by advanced new imaging techniques such as MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and the PET (positron emission tomography) scan, neuroscientists have been better able to localize specific functions involving thought, language, perceiving, mental imaging, memory, and other abilities. Much more has been learned about the roles of neurotransmitters as well. New life has been given to the traditional philosophical debate on how to reconcile the seeming contradiction between the richness of subjective experience, including self-awareness, with purely scientific explanations of brain function.

Bibliography

See D. Dennett, Consciousness Explained (1991); J. A. Hobson, The Chemistry of Conscious States (1994); S. A. Greenfield, The Human Brain (1997); M. R. W. Dawson, Understanding Cognitive Science (1998); J. M. Allman, Evolving Brains (1999); V. X. Ramachandran, The Tell-Tale Brain (2011); R. Desalle and I. Tattersall, The Brain (2012); M. R. Trimble, The Soul in the Brain (2013).

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