The Cranial Nerves


When you have completed this section, you should be able to

• list the 12 cranial nerves by name and number;

• identify where each cranial nerve originates and terminates; and

• state the functions of each cranial nerve.

To be functional, the brain must communicate with the rest of the body. Most of its input and output travels by way of the spinal cord, but it also communicates by way of the cranial nerves, which arise from the base of the brain, exit the cranium through its foramina, and lead to muscles and sense organs primarily in the head and neck. There are 12 pairs of cranial nerves, numbered I to XII starting with the most rostral (fig. 14.27). Each nerve also has a descriptive name such as optic nerve and vagus nerve. The cranial nerves are illustrated and described in table 14.2.

Cranial nerves are traditionally classified as sensory (I, II, and VIII), motor (III, IV, VI, XI, and XII), and mixed (V, VII, IX, and X). In reality, only cranial nerves I and II (for smell and vision) are purely sensory, whereas all the rest contain both afferent and efferent fibers and are therefore mixed nerves. Those traditionally classified as motor not only stimulate muscle contractions but also contain afferent fibers of proprioception, which provide your brain with unconscious feedback for controlling muscle contraction and make you consciously aware of such things as the position of your tongue and orientation of your head. Cranial nerve VIII, concerned with hearing and equilibrium, is traditionally classified as sensory, but it has motor fibers that return signals to the inner ear and "tune" it to sharpen our sense of hearing. The nerves traditionally classified as mixed have sensory functions quite unrelated to their motor functions—for example, the facial nerve (VII) has a sensory role in taste and a motor role in controlling facial expressions.

In order to teach the traditional classification (which is relevant for such purposes as board examinations and comparison to other books), yet remind you that all but two of these nerves are mixed, table 14.2 describes many of the nerves as predominantly sensory or motor.

The motor fibers of the cranial nerves begin in nuclei of the brainstem and lead to glands and muscles. The sensory fibers begin in receptors located mainly in the head and neck and lead mainly to the brainstem. Pathways for the special senses are described in chapter 16. Sensory fibers for proprioception begin in the muscles innervated by the motor fibers of the cranial nerves, but they often travel to the brain in a different nerve than the one which supplies the motor innervation.

Most cranial nerves carry fibers between the brain-stem and ipsilateral receptors and effectors. Thus, a lesion to one side of the brainstem causes a sensory or motor deficit on the same side of the head. This contrasts with lesions to the motor and somesthetic cortex of the cerebrum, which, as we saw earlier, cause sensory and motor deficits on the contralateral side of the body. The exceptions are the optic nerve (cranial nerve II), where half the fibers decussate to the opposite side of the brain (see chapter 16), and trochlear nerve (cranial nerve IV), in which all efferent fibers go to a muscle of the contralateral eye.

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  • Gebre
    How are cranial nerves named and numbered?
    7 years ago

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