Alzheimer's Disease: Unraveling the Mystery

Inside the Human Brain

The brain has many parts, each of which is responsible for particular functions. The following section describes a few key structures and what they do.

THE MAIN PLAYERS

Front View of the Brain

Front View of the Brain

Two cerebral hemispheres account for 85 percent of the brain’s weight. The billions of neurons in the two hemispheres are connected by thick bundles of nerve cell fibers called the corpus callosum. Scientists now think that the two hemispheres differ not so much in what they do (the “logical versus artistic” notion), but in how they process information. The left hemisphere appears to focus on details (such as recognizing a particular face in a crowd). The right hemisphere focuses on broad background (such as understanding the relative position of objects in a space). The cerebral hemispheres have an outer layer called the cerebral cortex. This is where the brain processes sensory information received from the outside world, controls voluntary movement, and regulates cognitive functions, such as thinking, learning, speaking, remembering, and making decisions. The hemispheres have four lobes, each of which has different roles:

  • The frontal lobe, which is in the front of the brain, controls “executive function” activities like thinking, organizing, planning, and problem solving, as well as memory, attention, and movement.
  • The parietal lobe, which sits behind the frontal lobe, deals with the perception and integration of stimuli from the senses.
  • The occipital lobe, which is at the back of the brain, is concerned with vision.
  • The temporal lobe, which runs along the side of the brain under the frontal and parietal lobes, deals with the senses of smell, taste, and sound, and the formation and storage of memories.

The cerebellum sits above the brain stem and beneath the occipital lobe. It takes up a little more than 10 percent of the brain. This part of the brain plays roles in balance and coordination. The cerebellum has two hemispheres, which receive information from the eyes, ears, and muscles and joints about the body’s movements and position. Once the cerebellum processes that information, it sends instructions to the body through the rest of the brain and spinal cord. The cerebellum’s work allows us to move smoothly, maintain our balance, and turn around without even thinking about it. It also is involved with motor learning and remembering how to do things like drive a car or write your name.

The brain stem sits at the base of the brain. It connects the spinal cord with the rest of the brain. Even though it is the smallest of the three main players, its functions are crucial to survival. The brain stem controls the functions that happen automatically to keep us alive—our heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. It also relays information between the brain and the spinal cord, which then sends out messages to the muscles, skin, and other organs. Sleep and dreaming are also controlled by the brain stem.

Side View of the Brain

This illustration shows a three-dimensional side view of one of two cerebral hemispheres of the brain. To help visualize this, imagine looking at the cut side of an avocado sliced long ways in half, with the pit still in the fruit. In this illustration, the “pit” is several key structures that lie deep within the brain (the hypothalamus, amygdala, and hippocampus) and the brain stem.

OTHER CRUCIAL PARTS

Several other essential parts of the brain lie deep inside the cerebral hemispheres in a network of structures called the limbic system. The limbic system links the brain stem with the higher reasoning elements of the cerebral cortex. It plays a key role in developing and carrying out instinctive behaviors and emotions and also is important in perceiving smells and linking them with memory, emotion, and instinctive behaviors. The limbic system includes:

  • The amygdala, an almond-shaped structure involved in processing and remembering strong emotions such as fear. It is located in the temporal lobe just in front of the hippocampus.
  • The hippocampus, which is buried in the temporal lobe, is important for learning and short-term memory. This part of the brain is thought to be the site where short-term memories are converted into long-term memories for storage in other brain areas.
  • The thalamus, located at the top of the brain stem, receives sensory and limbic information, processes it, and then sends it to the cerebral cortex.
  • The hypothalamus, a structure under the thalamus, monitors activities such as body temperature and food intake. It issues instructions to correct any imbalances. The hypothalamus also controls the body’s internal clock.

THE BRAIN IN ACTION

researchers reviewing scan dataSophisticated brain-imaging techniques allow scientists to monitor brain function in living people and to see how various parts of the brain are used for different kinds of tasks. This is opening up worlds of knowledge about brain function and how it changes with age or disease.

One of these imaging techniques is called positron emission tomography, or PET scanning. Some PET scans measure blood flow and glucose metabolism throughout the brain. (For more on metabolism, see "Metabolism".) During a PET scan, a small amount of a radioactive substance is attached to a compound, such as glucose, and injected into the bloodstream. This tracer substance eventually goes to the brain. When nerve cells in a region of the brain become active, blood flow and glucose metabolism in that region increase. When colored to reflect metabolic activity, increases usually look red and yellow. Shades of blue and black indicate decreased or no activity within a brain region. In essence, a PET scan produces a “map” of the active brain.

Scientists can use PET scans to see what happens in the brain when a person is engaged in a physical or mental activity, at rest, or even while sleeping or dreaming. Certain tracers can track the activity of brain chemicals, for example neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. (To learn about exciting developments using one new tracer, see "PiB and PET.") Some of these neurotransmitters are changed with age, disease, and drug therapies.

Publication Date: September 2008
Page Last Updated: March 20, 2014