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Cranial Nerves in Mammals – Definition, Types, Structure, Functions

What is Cranial nerve?

  • Cranial nerves are a set of nerves that extend throughout the body on both sides, directly emerging from the brain and brainstem. They play a crucial role in carrying information between the brain and various parts of the body, primarily focusing on the head and neck regions. These nerves are present in pairs, with one on each side of the body. Their main functions include facilitating the senses of smell, vision, hearing, and controlling the movement of muscles.
  • Unlike spinal nerves that emerge from the spinal cord, cranial nerves originate directly from the brain. Most of these nerves arise from the brainstem and pass through the muscles and sense organs of the head and neck. There are twelve cranial nerves, each assigned a Roman numeral based on the order in which they emerge from the brain, ranging from front to back.
  • While cranial nerves are generally considered part of the peripheral nervous system, it’s important to note that the olfactory nerve (I) and optic nerve (II) are considered part of the central nervous system. The majority of cranial nerves belong to the somatic system, but some are purely sensory or motor, while others are mixed nerves containing both sensory and motor fibers.
  • Cranial nerves I and II are purely sensory, responsible for the sense of smell and vision, respectively. The remaining cranial nerves are mixed nerves, carrying both afferent (sensory) and efferent (motor) fibers. However, the vagus nerve, which is part of the tenth cranial nerve (X), also has branches that innervate most internal organs and is involved in the autonomic nervous system.
  • In summary, cranial nerves are the nerves that directly emerge from the brain and brainstem. They relay information between the brain and various parts of the body, particularly the head and neck. These nerves are crucial for sensory functions such as smell, vision, and hearing, as well as for controlling muscle movements. While most cranial nerves belong to the peripheral nervous system, a few are considered part of the central nervous system.

Definition of Cranial nerve

Cranial nerves are a set of twelve pairs of nerves that emerge directly from the brain and are responsible for controlling various functions in the head, neck, and some organs in the chest and abdomen. These nerves transmit sensory information, such as sight, hearing, taste, and touch, as well as motor signals that control muscle movements, including those involved in chewing, swallowing, facial expressions, and eye movements. Each cranial nerve serves a specific region or function, and they play a vital role in maintaining the overall functioning of the body.

Cranial Nerves List

The cranial nerves are an essential part of the peripheral nervous system and play a crucial role in transmitting sensory and motor information between various parts of the body and the brain. There are twelve pairs of cranial nerves, each with its specific functions and areas of innervation.

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  1. Olfactory Nerve (I): The olfactory nerve is responsible for the sense of smell. It carries sensory information from the olfactory receptors in the nasal cavity to the brain. Unlike other nerves, the olfactory nerve has the ability to regenerate.
  2. Optic Nerve (II): The optic nerve is involved in vision. It carries visual information from the retina of the eye to the brain, allowing us to perceive and interpret visual stimuli.
  3. Oculomotor Nerve (III): The oculomotor nerve controls most of the eye’s movements. It innervates the muscles that control eye movement, including the superior rectus, inferior rectus, medial rectus, and inferior oblique muscles. It also controls the constriction of the pupil and maintains an open eyelid.
  4. Trochlear Nerve (IV): The trochlear nerve is a motor nerve that innervates the superior oblique muscle of the eye. This muscle plays a crucial role in rotational movement of the eye, particularly downward and inward movements.
  5. Trigeminal Nerve (V): The trigeminal nerve is responsible for sensation and motor function in the face and mouth. It has three main branches: the ophthalmic branch, maxillary branch, and mandibular branch. The trigeminal nerve enables facial sensation, including touch, temperature, and pain, and controls the muscles involved in chewing.
  6. Abducens Nerve (VI): The abducens nerve is a motor nerve that innervates the lateral rectus muscle of the eye. This muscle is responsible for lateral movement of the eye, allowing it to move away from the midline.
  7. Facial Nerve (VII): The facial nerve controls the muscles of facial expression. It also plays a role in transmitting taste sensations from the anterior two-thirds of the tongue and the oral cavity. Additionally, it is involved in tear production, saliva secretion, and the sensation of taste.
  8. Vestibulocochlear Nerve (VIII): The vestibulocochlear nerve is responsible for transmitting sound and equilibrium (balance) information from the inner ear to the brain. It consists of two main branches: the vestibular branch, which carries information about balance, and the cochlear branch, which carries auditory information.
  9. Glossopharyngeal Nerve (IX): The glossopharyngeal nerve receives sensory information from the tonsils, pharynx, middle ear, and the posterior third of the tongue. It is involved in swallowing, taste sensation, and the reflex control of blood pressure and heart rate.
  10. Vagus Nerve (X): The vagus nerve is a versatile nerve with various functions. It is responsible for regulating heart rate, gastrointestinal peristalsis, sweating, and muscle movements in the mouth, including speech. It also helps keep the larynx open for breathing.
  11. Spinal Accessory Nerve (XI): The spinal accessory nerve controls specific muscles of the shoulder and neck, including the trapezius and sternocleidomastoid muscles. It enables movements like shrugging the shoulders and turning the head.
  12. Hypoglossal Nerve (XII): The hypoglossal nerve controls the movements of the tongue, including speech, food manipulation, and swallowing.
The cranial nerves
The cranial nerves- The locations of the cranial nerves within the brain. | Image Credit: university.pressbooks.pub

To aid in remembering the twelve cranial nerves in order, one mnemonic device is “Old Opie Occasionally Tries Trigonometry And Feels Very Gloomy, Vague And Hypoactive.”

Cranial Nerves ListLocationTypeFunction
Olfactory (I)Cribriform plateSensorySmell
Optic (II)Optic foramenSensoryVision
Oculomotor (III)Superior orbital fissureMotorEye movement
Trochlear (IV)Superior orbital fissureMotorEye movement
Trigeminal (V)Superior orbital fissureMixedFacial sensation
Abducens (VI)Superior orbital fissureMotorEye movement
Facial (VII)Internal auditory canalMixedFacial expression
Vestibulocochlear nerve (VIII) (auditory vestibular nerve)Internal auditory canalSensoryHearing and balance
Glossopharyngeal (XI)Jugular foramenMixedOral sensation and taste
Vagus (X)Jugular foramenMixedVagus nerve
Accessory (XI)Jugular foramenMotorShoulder elevation and head-turning
Hypoglossal (XII)HypoglossalMotorTongue movement

Origin of the Cranial Nerves

The cranial nerves, which are responsible for controlling various functions in the head, neck, and some organs in the chest and abdomen, have different origins within the brain. Out of the twelve cranial nerves, the olfactory nerve (CN I) and optic nerve (CN II) originate directly from the cerebrum. These two nerves arise from the brain’s highest region.

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The remaining cranial nerves, from CN III to CN XII, originate from the brainstem. The brainstem consists of three main parts: the midbrain, pons, and medulla. The nerves can either arise from a specific part of the brainstem or from the junction between two parts.

In the midbrain, the trochlear nerve (CN IV) originates from the posterior side. It is noteworthy that the trochlear nerve has the longest intracranial length among all the cranial nerves.

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The location of the cranial nerves on the cerebrum and brainstem.
The location of the cranial nerves on the cerebrum and brainstem. | Image Credit: university.pressbooks.pub

At the midbrain-pontine junction, the oculomotor nerve (CN III) arises. This nerve is involved in controlling eye movements.

In the pons, the trigeminal nerve (CN V) originates. The trigeminal nerve is responsible for sensation in the face and controlling the muscles involved in chewing.

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The pontine-medulla junction gives rise to three cranial nerves: the abducens nerve (CN VI), facial nerve (CN VII), and vestibulocochlear nerve (CN VIII). The abducens nerve controls the lateral movement of the eye, the facial nerve is involved in facial expressions and taste sensation, and the vestibulocochlear nerve is responsible for hearing and balance.

Moving to the medulla oblongata, there are three cranial nerves located posterior to the olive: the glossopharyngeal nerve (CN IX), vagus nerve (CN X), and accessory nerve (CN XI). These nerves are involved in various functions, including swallowing, speech, and control of the heart, lungs, and digestive system.

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Anterior to the olive in the medulla oblongata is the hypoglossal nerve (CN XII). This nerve controls the muscles of the tongue.

The cranial nerves are numbered based on their location on the brainstem, starting from superior to inferior, and then medial to lateral. The order of their exit from the cranium is also taken into account, going from anterior to posterior. This numbering system helps identify and differentiate each cranial nerve based on its specific location and exit point from the cranium.

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Structure of Cranial Nerves

1. Cranial nerve I (olfactory nerve) – Olfactory (I) Nerve

  • The olfactory nerve, also known as cranial nerve I, is responsible for the sense of smell. It is the first of the twelve cranial nerves and is unique in several ways.
  • The olfactory nerve consists of a collection of many sensory nerve fibers that originate from the olfactory epithelium, a specialized tissue located in the upper parts of the nasal cavity. These nerve fibers extend from the olfactory epithelium to the olfactory bulb, which is part of the central nervous system. Unlike most cranial nerves, the olfactory nerve does not join with the brainstem but instead connects directly to the olfactory bulb.
  • Within the olfactory mucosa, which covers the superior nasal concha and nasal septum, are olfactory receptor neurons. These specialized neurons have olfactory receptors that detect different smells. When small molecules, known as odorants, pass over the nasal epithelium during inhalation, they interact with these receptors, initiating electrical signals in the olfactory receptor neurons.
  • Interestingly, olfactory receptor neurons continue to emerge throughout life and extend new axons to the olfactory bulb. Olfactory-ensheathing glia, a type of supporting cells, assist in the passage of these axons into the central nervous system.
  • The electrical activity generated by the olfactory receptor neurons is transmitted to the olfactory bulb, which then relays this information to other parts of the olfactory system and the central nervous system through the olfactory tract. The olfactory bulb is located at the inferior aspect of the frontal lobe, between the orbital gyrus and the gyrus rectus. From there, the olfactory projections travel to various regions, including the contralateral bulb via the anterior commissure, the septal area, the amygdala, and the piriform cortex, which is the primary olfactory cortex responsible for conscious perception of odors.
  • In summary, the olfactory nerve plays a crucial role in our sense of smell. It consists of sensory nerve fibers that connect the olfactory epithelium to the olfactory bulb. Through these connections, olfactory receptor neurons detect odorants and transmit electrical signals to the central nervous system, allowing us to perceive and distinguish various smells.
Olfactory bulb
Olfactory bulb | Image Credit: university.pressbooks.pub

2. Cranial nerve II (optic nerve) – Optic (II) Nerve

  • The optic nerve, also known as cranial nerve II, is responsible for conveying visual sensory information from the retina to various parts of the brain involved in vision processing.
  • The optic nerve consists of special somatic afferent (SSA) fibers that transmit visual information from the sensory receptors in the rods and cones of the retina. Ganglion cells, located deep in the retina, have central projections that form the optic nerve fibers. These fibers traverse the optic canal and enter the cranium.
  • The fibers of the optic nerve transmit visual information to different regions of the brain. The majority of fibers representing the medial visual fields continue posteriorly without crossing at the optic chiasm. In contrast, fibers representing the lateral visual fields do cross within the optic chiasm. This arrangement allows for the retinotopic organization of different regions of the visual field within the optic nerve and at their synapses in the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN) of the thalamus.
  • Aside from the LGN, the optic nerve fibers also give off collaterals that innervate the superior colliculus (SC), which plays a role in the pupillary light reflex. The collaterals from the optic nerve within the pulvinar of the thalamus provide unconscious optic input, contributing to a phenomenon known as blindsight. Blindsight refers to the ability of some individuals with cortical blindness to demonstrate unconscious eye movements in response to the detection of light and a weak sense of the location of the light within the visual field.
  • Overall, the optic nerve serves as the pathway for transmitting visual information from the retina to the brain. It connects to the lateral geniculate nucleus, superior colliculus, and other parts of the visual processing system. The organization of fibers within the optic nerve allows for the retinotopic representation of different regions of the visual field, enabling the brain to construct a coherent visual perception.
Optic nerve
Optic nerve | Image Credit: university.pressbooks.pub

3. Oculomotor (III) Nerve

  • The oculomotor nerve, also known as cranial nerve III, plays a crucial role in controlling eye movements and various functions associated with the eyes.
  • The oculomotor nerve is the third paired cranial nerve and is responsible for innervating several muscles that control eye movements. It originates from the basal plate of the embryonic midbrain and enters the orbit through the superior orbital fissure.
  • The oculomotor nerve contains two nuclei that contribute to its functions. The oculomotor nucleus, located at the level of the superior colliculus, controls the striated muscles in the levator palpebrae superioris and all extraocular muscles except for the superior oblique muscle and the lateral rectus muscle. These muscles are involved in different eye movements, including elevation, depression, adduction, and intorsion.
  • The Edinger-Westphal nucleus, another nucleus associated with the oculomotor nerve, supplies parasympathetic fibers to the eye through the ciliary ganglion. These fibers control the pupillary muscles, which affect the constriction of the pupil, and the ciliary muscle, which affects accommodation (the ability to focus on objects at different distances).
  • In addition to the muscles and parasympathetic fibers, the oculomotor nerve also receives sympathetic postganglionic fibers. These fibers join the nerve from the plexus on the internal carotid artery in the wall of the cavernous sinus. They are distributed through the nerve to various structures, such as the smooth muscle of the levator palpebrae superioris.
  • Overall, the oculomotor nerve is responsible for controlling eye movements, pupil constriction, and maintaining an open eyelid. Its nuclei and associated fibers work together to coordinate the complex movements and functions of the eye, allowing us to focus on objects, track moving targets, and maintain visual stability.


As the oculomotor nerve emerges from the brain, it undergoes a distinct anatomical path and encounters various structures.

Initially, the oculomotor nerve is enveloped by a sheath of pia mater and covered by an extension of the arachnoid mater. It passes between the superior cerebellar and posterior cerebral arteries and then pierces the dura mater, which is located anterior and lateral to the posterior clinoid process. At this point, it attaches to the tectorium cerebella. The nerve passes between the free and attached borders of the tentorium cerebelli, a structure that separates the cerebellum from the inferior part of the occipital lobes of the brain.

Continuing its course, the oculomotor nerve travels along the lateral wall of the cavernous sinus, a large venous sinus located on each side of the sella turcica (a bony structure housing the pituitary gland). Within the cavernous sinus, the oculomotor nerve runs above the other orbital nerves. During this journey, it receives one or two filaments from the cavernous plexus of the sympathetic nervous system, which plays a role in regulating various bodily functions.

Furthermore, the oculomotor nerve receives a communicating branch from the ophthalmic division of the trigeminal nerve, which is responsible for transmitting sensory information from the face and controlling the muscles involved in chewing.

Finally, the oculomotor nerve divides into two branches as it enters the orbit through the superior orbital fissure, a bony opening in the skull. These branches pass between the two heads of the lateral rectus muscle, which is located on the lateral side of the eyeball within the orbit. Notably, the trochlear nerve, frontal branch of the ophthalmic nerve, and lacrimal branch of the ophthalmic nerve lie above the oculomotor nerve in the orbit. Meanwhile, the nasociliary nerve, another branch of the ophthalmic nerve, is positioned between the two divisions (superior and inferior branches) of the oculomotor nerve.

This pathway and arrangement of structures allow the oculomotor nerve to reach the appropriate structures in the orbit and fulfill its role in controlling eye movements, pupil constriction, and maintaining an open eyelid.

4. Trochlear (IV) Nerve

  • The trochlear nerve, also known as cranial nerve IV, is a motor nerve that specifically innervates the superior oblique muscle of the eye.
  • As the name suggests, the trochlear nerve is responsible for controlling the superior oblique muscle, which plays a crucial role in eye movement and rotation. It is the only cranial nerve that innervates a single muscle.
  • The trochlear nerve is distinct among the cranial nerves in several ways. It contains the fewest number of axons compared to the other cranial nerves and has the longest intracranial course. It also exhibits unique anatomical characteristics. Unlike most cranial nerves, except for the optic nerve (cranial nerve II), the trochlear nerve decussates or crosses to the opposite side before reaching its target muscle. Additionally, it exits the brainstem from the dorsal aspect, which further sets it apart from other cranial nerves.
  • The nucleus of the trochlear nerve is located in the caudal mesencephalon, situated beneath the cerebral aqueduct. It is positioned just below the nucleus of the oculomotor nerve (cranial nerve III) in the rostral mesencephalon.
  • The axons of the trochlear nucleus have a distinctive course. They run dorsally and cross the midline before emerging from the brainstem. This means that a lesion or damage to the trochlear nucleus affects the contralateral eye, causing specific visual disturbances. In contrast, lesions in other cranial nuclei typically result in symptoms on the same side (ipsilateral) of the body. However, it’s worth noting that the optic nerve (cranial nerve II) is an exception as it innervates both eyes.
  • Interestingly, homologous trochlear nerves with similar characteristics can be found in all jawed vertebrates. The unique features of the trochlear nerve, such as its dorsal exit from the brainstem and contralateral innervation, are observed in the primitive brains of sharks.
  • In human development, the trochlear nerve originates from the basal plate of the embryonic midbrain. It undergoes intricate growth and connectivity processes to establish its functional role in eye movement and coordination.
The trochlear nerve
The trochlear nerve | Image Credit: university.pressbooks.pub

Clinical Syndromes

Damage to the trochlear nerve can give rise to two major clinical syndromes:

  1. Vertical diplopia: When the trochlear nerve is injured, it leads to weakness in downward eye movement. This results in vertical diplopia, which means seeing double vision in a vertical orientation. The affected individual sees two separate images, one above the other. This occurs because the superior oblique muscle, innervated by the trochlear nerve, plays a crucial role in downward eye movement. The weakened muscle function disrupts the coordination between the eyes, leading to double vision.
  2. Torsional diplopia: Weakness or impairment of intorsion, which is the rotational movement of the eye inwards, can cause torsional diplopia. In this condition, two distinct visual fields appear tilted or rotated relative to each other, resulting in double vision. To compensate for this, individuals with trochlear nerve damage often adopt a compensatory head tilt to the opposite side. Tilting the head helps align the two images into a single visual field and reduces the perception of double vision.

Both of these clinical syndromes can occur due to damage in either the peripheral or central regions of the trochlear nerve pathway. A peripheral lesion refers to damage occurring along the course of the nerve fibers, while a central lesion refers to damage specifically affecting the trochlear nucleus in the brainstem. Depending on the location and extent of the lesion, the resulting symptoms and manifestations of the syndromes may vary.

5. Trigeminal (V) Nerve

The trigeminal nerve (cranial nerve V) is responsible for both sensory and motor functions in the face and mouth. It plays a crucial role in providing sensation and controlling various motor functions related to biting, chewing, and swallowing.

Structure: The trigeminal nerve is the largest of the cranial nerves and consists of three major branches on each side: the ophthalmic nerve (V1), the maxillary nerve (V2), and the mandibular nerve (V3). The ophthalmic and maxillary nerves are purely sensory, while the mandibular nerve has both sensory and motor functions.

These branches converge at the trigeminal ganglion, which is located within the trigeminal cave in the brain. The trigeminal ganglion contains the cell bodies of incoming sensory nerve fibers, similar to the dorsal root ganglia of the spinal cord.

Areas of the face innervated by the trigeminal nerve
Areas of the face innervated by the trigeminal nerve | Image Credit: university.pressbooks.pub

Function: The sensory function of the trigeminal nerve involves providing tactile, motion, position, and pain sensations to the face and mouth. It enables us to perceive touch, temperature, and pain in these areas. Additionally, proprioceptive information, which helps in determining the position and movement of facial muscles, is also transmitted through this nerve.

The motor function of the trigeminal nerve is primarily associated with the mandibular division (V3). It controls the movement of eight muscles, including the muscles of mastication (masseter, temporal, medial and lateral pterygoids), as well as the tensor veli palatini, mylohyoid, anterior belly of the digastric, and tensor tympani muscles. These muscles are involved in essential functions such as biting, chewing, swallowing, and the regulation of certain structures in the ear.

Overall, the trigeminal nerve plays a critical role in the sensory perception and motor control of the face and mouth, contributing to our ability to sense and respond to stimuli in these areas.

Trigeminal nerve
Trigeminal nerve | Image Credit: university.pressbooks.pub

6. Abducens (VI) Nerve

  • The abducens nerve, also known as cranial nerve VI, is responsible for controlling the lateral movement of the eye through its innervation of the lateral rectus muscle.
  • The abducens nerve exits the brainstem at the junction of the pons and the medulla. From there, it runs upward, traveling between the dura mater (a protective layer covering the brain) and the skull, to reach the eye. The nerve follows a long course between the brainstem and the eye, which makes it vulnerable to injury at various levels.
  • In humans, the abducens nerve controls the movement of the lateral rectus muscle, which allows the eye to move horizontally. However, in most other mammals, it also innervates the musculus retractor bulbi, a muscle that can retract the eye for protection. Homologous abducens nerves are found in all vertebrates except lampreys and hagfishes.
  • The pathway of the abducens nerve involves leaving the brainstem, entering the subarachnoid space, and running upward between the pons and the clivus (a bony ridge). It then pierces the dura mater and continues between the dura and the skull. At the tip of the petrous temporal bone, it takes a sharp turn forward to enter the cavernous sinus, a cavity in the skull. Within the cavernous sinus, the nerve runs alongside the internal carotid artery. Finally, it enters the orbit (eye socket) through the superior orbital fissure and innervates the lateral rectus muscle.
  • Due to its lengthy course, the abducens nerve is susceptible to injury at multiple levels. Fractures of the petrous temporal bone or aneurysms of the intracavernous carotid artery can selectively damage the nerve. Mass lesions that push the brainstem downward can also stretch and damage the abducens nerve between its emergence from the pons and its passage over the petrous temporal bone.
  • Overall, the abducens nerve plays a crucial role in controlling the lateral movement of the eye and ensuring proper eye coordination.
Abducens nerve
Abducens nerve | Image Credit: university.pressbooks.pub

7. Facial (VII) Nerve

  • The facial nerve, also known as cranial nerve VII, plays a crucial role in determining facial expressions and conveying taste sensations from the tongue and oral cavity.
  • The facial nerve originates from the facial nerve nucleus in the pons for its motor component, while the sensory component arises from the nervus intermedius. These two components of the facial nerve enter the petrous temporal bone through the internal auditory meatus, which is located near the inner ear. The nerve then follows a complex path through the facial canal, with two tight turns, before emerging from the stylomastoid foramen. After passing through the parotid gland, the facial nerve branches into five major divisions.
  • The facial nerve does not innervate the parotid gland itself (that responsibility lies with cranial nerve IX, the glossopharyngeal nerve). Before entering the facial canal, the nerve forms the geniculate ganglion. The path of the facial nerve can be divided into six segments: intracranial (cisternal) segment, meatal segment, labyrinthine segment, tympanic segment, mastoid segment, and extratemporal segment.
  • The primary function of the facial nerve is to control the muscles responsible for facial expressions. Voluntary movements such as wrinkling the brow, showing teeth, frowning, closing the eyes tightly (lagophthalmos when unable to do so), pursing the lips, and puffing out the cheeks all test the integrity of the facial nerve. Ideally, there should be no noticeable asymmetry in these facial movements.
  • In cases of an upper motor neuron lesion, referred to as central seven or central facial palsy, only the lower part of the face on the contralateral side will be affected due to the bilateral control of the upper facial muscles. Lower motor neuron lesions, on the other hand, can lead to facial nerve palsy (Bell’s palsy being the idiopathic form), resulting in weakness of both the upper and lower facial muscles on the same side as the lesion.
  • The facial nerve is also involved in conveying taste sensations from the anterior two-thirds of the tongue. This can be tested using a swab dipped in a flavored solution or through electronic stimulation.
  • Furthermore, the corneal reflex, which involves the blinking of both eyes in response to stimulation of one eye, depends on the proper functioning of both the trigeminal nerve (cranial nerve V) and the facial nerve (cranial nerve VII). The trigeminal nerve carries the sensory information from the cornea, while the facial nerve innervates the orbicularis oculi muscle responsible for blinking.
  • Overall, the facial nerve is essential for controlling facial expressions and transmitting taste sensations, and its proper functioning is necessary for normal facial movement and sensation.
The facial nerve
The facial nerve | Image Credit: university.pressbooks.pub

The facial nerve (cranial nerve VII) has a specific location and is responsible for various functions related to facial movements and sensations.

Location: The facial nerve has two components: the motor part and the sensory part. The motor part arises from the facial nerve nucleus in the pons, while the sensory part originates from the nervus intermedius. Both components enter the petrous temporal bone through the internal auditory meatus, which is located near the inner ear. The facial nerve then follows a complex path through the facial canal, which includes two tight turns. It emerges from the stylomastoid foramen and passes through the parotid gland, where it divides into five major branches. Although it passes through the parotid gland, it does not innervate the gland itself (this responsibility lies with cranial nerve IX, the glossopharyngeal nerve). Before entering the facial canal, the facial nerve forms the geniculate ganglion. The path of the facial nerve can be divided into six segments: intracranial (cisternal) segment, meatal segment, labyrinthine segment, tympanic segment, mastoid segment, and extratemporal segment.

Functions: The facial nerve performs several important functions related to facial movements and sensations. Voluntary facial movements such as wrinkling the brow, showing teeth, frowning, closing the eyes tightly (lagophthalmos when unable to do so), pursing the lips, and puffing out the cheeks all test the functionality of the facial nerve. In normal circumstances, there should be no noticeable asymmetry in these facial movements.

In cases of an upper motor neuron lesion, known as central seven or central facial palsy, only the lower part of the face on the contralateral side will be affected due to the bilateral control of the upper facial muscles (frontalis and orbicularis oculi).

Lower motor neuron lesions can result in a cranial nerve VII palsy, with Bell’s palsy being the idiopathic form of facial nerve palsy. This manifests as weakness in both the upper and lower facial muscles on the same side as the lesion.

The facial nerve is also involved in conveying taste sensations from the anterior two-thirds of the tongue. This can be tested using a swab dipped in a flavored solution or through electronic stimulation.

The corneal reflex, which involves the blinking of both eyes in response to stimulation of one eye, depends on the proper functioning of both the trigeminal nerve (cranial nerve V) and the facial nerve (cranial nerve VII). The trigeminal nerve carries the sensory information from the cornea, while the facial nerve innervates the orbicularis oculi muscle responsible for blinking. Thus, the corneal reflex effectively tests the proper functioning of both cranial nerves V and VII.

In summary, the facial nerve’s location encompasses a complex path through the skull, and its functions include controlling facial movements, conveying taste sensations, and participating in reflexes such as the corneal reflex.

8. Vestibulocochlear (VIII) Nerve

  • The vestibulocochlear nerve, also known as cranial nerve VIII, plays a crucial role in transmitting information related to hearing and balance. It is composed of two main divisions: the cochlear nerve, responsible for transmitting auditory information, and the vestibular nerve, responsible for transmitting balance information.
  • Starting in the inner ear’s cochlea, the cochlear nerve carries sensory information related to hearing. This portion of the nerve begins at the spiral ganglia, where it receives input from the sensory cells known as hair cells. These hair cells are responsible for converting sound waves into electrical signals that can be interpreted by the brain. The cochlear nerve then carries these signals away from the cochlea.
  • On the other hand, the vestibular nerve originates from the vestibular system of the inner ear. The vestibular system is involved in maintaining balance and spatial orientation. The vestibular nerve is responsible for relaying information about equilibrium. It connects to various sensory organs, including the cristae in the ampullae of the semicircular canals and the maculae of the saccule and utricle.
  • The cristae, found in the ampullae of the semicircular canals, contain hair cells that respond to rotational acceleration. When the head moves, these hair cells activate afferent receptors, sending signals through the vestibular nerve to the brain. Similarly, the maculae of the saccule and utricle contain hair cells that respond to linear acceleration. They detect changes in head position and movement, allowing us to maintain balance.
  • The vestibulocochlear nerve emerges from the pons, a part of the brainstem, and exits the inner skull through the internal acoustic meatus (or internal auditory meatus) located in the temporal bone. This pathway allows the sensory cells of the inner ear to transmit information to the brain for processing.
  • Damage to the vestibulocochlear nerve can lead to various symptoms, including hearing loss, vertigo (a false sense of motion), loss of equilibrium in dark environments, nystagmus (involuntary eye movements), motion sickness, and gaze-evoked tinnitus (ringing in the ears that occurs or worsens with eye movements).
  • One specific condition associated with the vestibulocochlear nerve is a vestibular schwannoma, also known as an acoustic neuroma. It is a benign primary intracranial tumor that affects the nerve. The presence of a vestibular schwannoma can lead to symptoms such as hearing loss, tinnitus, and balance problems.
  • Overall, the vestibulocochlear nerve plays a crucial role in our ability to hear and maintain balance. Its intricate connections with the sensory organs of the inner ear allow us to perceive sound and navigate the world around us.
Vestibular system’s semicircular canal
Vestibular system’s semicircular canal | Image Credit: university.pressbooks.pub

9. Glossopharyngeal (IX) Nerve

The glossopharyngeal nerve, also known as cranial nerve IX, has a diverse range of functions and provides sensory innervation to various structures in the head and neck region.

In terms of its structure, the glossopharyngeal nerve is the ninth cranial nerve out of the twelve pairs. It emerges from the sides of the upper medulla, just rostral to the vagus nerve, as it exits the brainstem. The motor division of the nerve originates from the basal plate of the embryonic medulla oblongata, while the sensory division comes from the cranial neural crest.

The glossopharyngeal nerve performs several important functions. It controls the muscles in the oral cavity and upper throat and plays a role in the sense of taste and saliva production.

The nerve receives general sensory fibers from various structures, including the tonsils, pharynx, middle ear, and the posterior one-third of the tongue. It also receives special sensory fibers responsible for taste sensation from the posterior one-third of the tongue. Additionally, it receives visceral sensory fibers from the carotid bodies and carotid sinus.

Glossopharyngeal nerve
Glossopharyngeal nerve | Image Credit: university.pressbooks.pub

The glossopharyngeal nerve has five distinct functional components:

  1. Branchial motor (special visceral efferent): This component supplies the stylopharyngeus muscle, which is involved in swallowing and elevating the pharynx during speech and swallowing.
  2. Visceral motor (general visceral efferent): It provides parasympathetic innervation to the parotid gland, which regulates salivary gland function.
  3. Visceral sensory (general visceral afferent): This component carries visceral sensory information from the carotid sinus and carotid body, which are involved in monitoring blood pressure and blood composition.
  4. General sensory (general somatic afferent): The general sensory component of the glossopharyngeal nerve provides sensory information from the skin of the external ear, internal surface of the tympanic membrane (eardrum), upper pharynx, and the posterior one-third of the tongue.
  5. Special sensory (special afferent): This component is responsible for taste sensation from the posterior one-third of the tongue.

The glossopharyngeal nerve also contributes to the pharyngeal plexus, a network of nerves involved in innervating the muscles and mucous membranes of the pharynx.

In summary, the glossopharyngeal nerve is involved in functions such as swallowing, taste perception, and salivary gland control. Its five functional components collectively enable it to perform its various roles in sensory and motor innervation of the head and neck region.

10. Vagus (X) Nerve

The vagus nerve, also known as cranial nerve X or the pneumogastric nerve, plays a crucial role in providing parasympathetic output to the heart and visceral organs. It serves both sensory and motor functions, relaying information about the body’s organs to the brain and carrying motor signals back to the organs.

In terms of anatomy, the vagus nerve originates from several nuclei in the medulla, including the dorsal nucleus of the vagus nerve, nucleus ambiguus, solitary nucleus, and spinal trigeminal nucleus. Axons from these nuclei form the vagus nerve, which extends from the medulla through the jugular foramen, passing into the carotid sheath between the internal carotid artery and internal jugular vein. It then travels to the neck, chest, and abdomen, providing innervation to the visceral organs.

Vagus nerve
Vagus nerve | Image Credit: university.pressbooks.pub

The vagus nerve is primarily composed of sensory (afferent) fibers, accounting for 80 to 90% of its nerve fibers. These afferent fibers transmit sensory information about the state of the body’s organs to the central nervous system. The nuclei of the medulla, from which the vagus nerve axons emerge or converge, have specific functions:

  1. Dorsal nucleus of the vagus nerve: Sends parasympathetic output to the viscera, particularly the intestines.
  2. Nucleus ambiguus: Sends parasympathetic output to the heart, contributing to its regulation and slowing it down.
  3. Solitary nucleus: Receives afferent taste information and primary afferents from visceral organs.
  4. Spinal trigeminal nucleus: Receives information about deep/crude touch, pain, and temperature from the outer ear, the dura of the posterior cranial fossa, and the laryngeal mucosa.

The vagus nerve carries out various functions related to motor parasympathetic innervation and control of organs. It supplies motor fibers to nearly all organs from the neck down to the second segment of the transverse colon. Additionally, it controls certain skeletal muscles involved in speech, swallowing, and other movements in the mouth.

The vagus nerve influences heart rate, gastrointestinal peristalsis, sweating, and the functioning of the larynx and pharynx muscles. It also innervates the inner portion of the outer ear and certain meningeal areas. The afferent fibers of the vagus nerve that innervate the pharynx and throat are responsible for the gag reflex. Stimulation of afferent vagus fibers in the gut, such as during gastroenteritis or other insults, can cause vomiting.

In terms of cardiovascular influence, the vagus nerve plays a role in parasympathetic innervation of the heart. When activated, it typically leads to a decrease in heart rate and/or blood pressure. Activation of the vagus nerve can occur in response to various stimuli, including viral gastroenteritis, acute cholecystitis, the Valsalva maneuver, pain, or emotional stress. Excessive vagal nerve activation during emotional stress can result in vasovagal syncope, causing a sudden drop in cardiac output and cerebral hypoperfusion.

Overall, the vagus nerve’s multifaceted functions make it a crucial component of the autonomic nervous system, regulating numerous physiological processes and maintaining homeostasis in the body.

11. Accessory (XI) Nerve

  • The accessory nerve, also known as cranial nerve XI, is responsible for controlling the muscles of the shoulder and neck. It plays a role in tilting and rotating the head, elevating the shoulders, and adducting the scapula.
  • The fibers of the accessory nerve originate mostly from neurons located in the upper spinal cord. These fibers enter the skull through the foramen magnum and then exit through the jugular foramen along with cranial nerves IX and X. It is unique among the cranial nerves as it is the only one that enters and exits the skull.
  • Anatomically, the accessory nerve controls the sternocleidomastoid and trapezius muscles of the shoulder and neck. Most of the fibers of the accessory nerve arise outside the skull, originating in neurons situated in the upper spinal cord. After exiting the skull via the jugular foramen, the spinal accessory nerve pierces the sternocleidomastoid muscle before terminating on the trapezius muscle.
  • Traditionally, the accessory nerve has been described as having two components: a spinal component and a cranial component. However, in contemporary discussions, the cranial component is often considered part of the vagus nerve. Therefore, when referencing the accessory nerve, the spinal component is the primary focus.
  • The function of the accessory nerve is to provide motor innervation from the central nervous system to the sternocleidomastoid and trapezius muscles. The sternocleidomastoid muscle allows for tilting and rotating the head, while the trapezius muscle contributes to shoulder elevation and adduction of the scapula.
  • During neurological examinations, the function of the spinal accessory nerve is often assessed by testing the range of motion and strength of the sternocleidomastoid and trapezius muscles. Limited range of motion or diminished muscle strength can indicate injury or dysfunction of the accessory nerve.
  • In cases of spinal accessory nerve palsy, patients may exhibit signs of lower motor neuron disease, such as muscle atrophy and fasciculations in both the sternocleidomastoid and trapezius muscles.
The accessory nerve
The accessory nerve | Image Credit: university.pressbooks.pub

12. Hypoglossal (XII) Nerve

  • The hypoglossal nerve, also known as cranial nerve XII, is responsible for controlling the muscles of the tongue. It plays a crucial role in tongue movements associated with speech, food manipulation, and swallowing.
  • The hypoglossal nerve innervates all extrinsic and intrinsic muscles of the tongue, except for the palatoglossus muscle. It emerges from the medulla oblongata in the preolivary sulcus, which separates the olive (olivary body) and the pyramid (medullary pyramid). After traversing the hypoglossal canal, it branches and merges with a branch from the anterior ramus of C1. It passes behind the vagus nerve and lies between the internal carotid artery and the internal jugular vein within the carotid sheath. From there, it proceeds deep to the posterior belly of the digastric muscle and enters the submandibular region to reach the tongue.
  • The primary function of the hypoglossal nerve is to control voluntary movements of the tongue, including those involved in speech, food manipulation, and swallowing. While it also controls the involuntary activities of swallowing to clear the mouth of saliva, the majority of its functions are under conscious control and require deliberate thought for execution.
  • The proper function of the hypoglossal nerve is crucial for the precise execution of tongue movements associated with speech. Different languages may require specific and sometimes unique utilization of the nerve to produce distinct speech sounds. This can contribute to the challenges encountered by adults when learning a new language, as they need to develop control over the precise movements facilitated by the hypoglossal nerve. Additionally, several corticonuclear-originating fibers provide innervation and assist in the unconscious movements required for speech and articulation.
  • In conditions such as progressive bulbar palsy, which involves neuromuscular atrophy associated with lesions in the hypoglossal nucleus and the nucleus ambiguous, dysfunction of the hypoglossal nerve can occur. This leads to impaired tongue movements, affecting speech, chewing, and swallowing. Tongue muscle atrophy may also be observed in such cases.
Hypoglossal nerve
Hypoglossal nerve | Image Credit: university.pressbooks.pub

Cranial Nerves Summerize

The cranial nerves are a set of twelve nerves that originate from the brain and are responsible for various functions related to sensation and movement. Here is a summary of the origin, nature, and functions of each cranial nerve based on the provided information:

I. Olfactory:

  • Nature: Pure sensory nerve
  • Origin: Olfactory lobe of the cerebrum
  • Distribution: Mucus membrane of the nasal cavity
  • Function: Transmits the sense of smell from the nasal cavity

II. Optic:

  • Nature: Sensory nerve
  • Origin: Optic lobe of the midbrain
  • Distribution: Retinal wall of the eye
  • Function: Carries visual information from the retina of the eye to the brain

III. Oculomotor:

  • Nature: Motor nerve
  • Origin: Ventro-lateral side of the midbrain
  • Distribution: Eye muscles
  • Function: Controls the movements of eye muscles, regulates pupil constriction, and helps keep the eyelid open

IV. Trochlear:

  • Nature: Motor nerve
  • Origin: Dorso-lateral side of the midbrain
  • Distribution: Eye muscles
  • Function: Controls the rotational movements of eye muscles

V. Trigeminal:

  • Origin: Lateral side of the medulla oblongata
  • Distribution: Divides into three branches:
    • Ophthalmic: Innervates the eyelid and nasal cavity mucous membrane (sensory)
    • Maxillary: Extends to the eyelid, upper, and lower jaws (sensory)
    • Mandibular: Extends to the muscles of the ventral buccal cavity (mixed)
  • Function: Transmits sensory information from the eyelid, nasal cavity, upper and lower jaws, and controls the movement of the lower jaw

VI. Abducens:

  • Origin: Lateral side of the medulla oblongata
  • Distribution: Lateral rectal eye muscle
  • Nature: Mixed nerve
  • Function: Responsible for the lateral movement of the eye

VII. Facial:

  • Origin: Lateral side of the medulla oblongata
  • Distribution: Two branches:
    • Palatine: Extended to the roof of the buccal cavity (sensory)
    • Hyomandibular: Extended to the buccal cavity and lower jaw (mixed)
  • Function: Responsible for taste, control of the buccal membrane, and taste of food

VIII. Auditory/Vestibulocochlear:

  • Nature: Sensory nerve
  • Origin: Lateral side of the medulla oblongata
  • Distribution: Inner ear
  • Function: Responsible for hearing and maintaining balance

IX. Glossopharyngeal:

  • Nature: Mixed nerve
  • Origin: Lateral side of the medulla oblongata
  • Distribution: Tongue and pharynx
  • Function: Responsible for taste and movement of the pharynx

X. Vagus:

  • Origin: Lateral side of the medulla oblongata
  • Distribution: Divides into four branches:
    • Laryngeal: Extended to the larynx (mixed)
    • Cardiac: Extended to the heart (mixed)
    • Gastric: Extended to the wall of the stomach (mixed)
    • Pulmonary: Extended to the lungs (mixed)
  • Function: Regulates activities of the larynx, heart, stomach, and lungs

XI. Spinal Accessory:

  • Nature: Motor nerve
  • Origin: Floor of the medulla oblongata
  • Distribution: Pharynx, larynx, and neck
  • Function: Maintains muscle movement of related organs such as the shoulder and neck

XII. Hypoglossal:

  • Origin: Lateral side of the medulla oblongata
  • Distribution: Tongue and neck
  • Nature: Motor nerve
  • Function: Regulates the movement of the tongue

These cranial nerves play vital roles in various sensory and motor functions, contributing to our ability to perceive and interact with the world around us.

Cranial NerveNatureOriginDistributionFunctions
I. OlfactoryPure sensoryOlfactory lobe of cerebrumMucus membrane of nasal cavityTransmits sense of smell from nasal cavity
II. OpticSensoryOptic lobe of midbrainRetinal wall of the eyeCarries visual information from retina to the brain
III. OculomotorMotorVentro-lateral side of midbrainEye musclesControls eye movements, pupil constriction, and eyelid
IV. TrochlearMotorDorso-lateral side of midbrainEye musclesControls rotational movements of eye muscles
V. TrigeminalMixedLateral side of medulla oblongataOphthalmic, Maxillary, Mandibular branchesTransmits sensory information and controls jaw movement
VI. AbducensMixedLateral side of medulla oblongataLateral rectal eye muscleResponsible for lateral movement of the eye
VII. FacialMixedLateral side of medulla oblongataPalatine, Hyomandibular branchesControls taste, buccal membrane, and facial muscles
VIII. Auditory/VestibulocochlearSensoryLateral side of medulla oblongataInner earResponsible for hearing and maintaining balance
IX. GlossopharyngealMixedLateral side of medulla oblongataTongue and pharynxControls taste and pharyngeal movement
X. VagusMixedLateral side of medulla oblongataLaryngeal, Cardiac, Gastric, Pulmonary branchesRegulates activities of larynx, heart, stomach, and lungs
XI. Spinal AccessoryMotorFloor of medulla oblongataPharynx, larynx, and neckControls muscle movement of related organs
XII. HypoglossalMotorLateral side of medulla oblongataTongue and neckRegulates movement of the tongue

Functions of Cranial Nerves

The cranial nerves play crucial roles in controlling various functions within the head, neck, and other parts of the body. Here are the functions associated with each cranial nerve:

  1. Olfactory nerve (CN I): It is responsible for the sense of smell. This nerve enables the detection and interpretation of different odors. Damage to this nerve can lead to distortions in the sense of smell and taste.
  2. Optic nerve (CN II): This nerve is involved in vision. It carries visual information from the eyes to the brain and vice versa. Any damage to this nerve can result in vision problems and impairments.
  3. Oculomotor nerve (CN III): The oculomotor nerve controls eye movements and helps in the coordination of eye muscles. Damage to this nerve can cause vision disturbances, including double vision and difficulties in eye movements.
  4. Trochlear nerve (CN IV) and Abducens nerve (CN VI): These nerves also contribute to eye movement control. Damage to the trochlear nerve may result in the inability to move the eyeball downwards, while damage to the abducens nerve can lead to a condition called diplopia, where double vision occurs.
  5. Trigeminal nerve (CN V): The trigeminal nerve is responsible for facial sensation. It consists of three branches: ophthalmic, maxillary, and mandibular. It enables various sensations in the face, such as touch, pain, and temperature.
  6. Facial nerve (CN VII): The facial nerve is responsible for facial expressions. It controls the muscles involved in facial movements and allows us to display emotions. Damage to this nerve can cause facial paralysis or weakness on one or both sides of the face.
  7. Vestibulocochlear nerve (CN VIII): This nerve, also known as the auditory vestibular nerve, is involved in hearing and balance. It helps in perceiving sound and maintaining balance. Damage to this nerve can result in symptoms like dizziness, vertigo, and hearing loss.
  8. Glossopharyngeal nerve (CN IX): The glossopharyngeal nerve is responsible for oral sensation and the sense of taste. It carries sensory information from the back of the tongue, throat, and tonsils. Damage to this nerve can lead to a loss of taste sensation.
  9. Vagus nerve (CN X): The vagus nerve monitors oxygen levels and provides sensory information from the throat area. It plays a role in swallowing and helps regulate various autonomic functions, such as heart rate and blood pressure. Damage to this nerve can affect swallowing and may result in complications like high blood pressure or heart problems.
  10. Accessory nerve (CN XI): Also known as nerve XI, the accessory nerve controls swallowing movements and assists in the movement of the head and shoulders. Damage to this nerve can lead to difficulties in swallowing and weakness in head and shoulder movements.
  11. Hypoglossal nerve (CN XII): The hypoglossal nerve controls the movement of the tongue and is essential for functions such as speech, swallowing, and chewing. Damage to this nerve can result in tongue weakness or difficulty in articulating speech.

FAQ

How many cranial nerves are present in mammals?

In mammals, there are typically 12 pairs of cranial nerves.

What are the functions of cranial nerves in mammals?

Cranial nerves in mammals serve various functions, including sensory perception, motor control of muscles, and regulation of glandular secretions. They are involved in processes such as vision, hearing, taste, smell, facial expressions, chewing, swallowing, and controlling the movement of the eyes.

Which cranial nerve is responsible for vision in mammals?

The optic nerve (cranial nerve II) is responsible for transmitting visual information from the retina of the eye to the brain, enabling mammals to perceive and process visual stimuli.

What is the role of the trigeminal nerve in mammals?

The trigeminal nerve (cranial nerve V) is responsible for sensation and motor function in the face and mouth of mammals. It provides tactile, motion, position, and pain sensations to the face and controls the muscles involved in biting, chewing, and swallowing.

Which cranial nerve is responsible for hearing in mammals?

The auditory or vestibulocochlear nerve (cranial nerve VIII) is responsible for transmitting auditory information from the inner ear to the brain, enabling mammals to perceive and process sound.

What is the function of the facial nerve in mammals?

The facial nerve (cranial nerve VII) controls the muscles of facial expression in mammals. It enables various facial movements and expressions, including smiling, frowning, and raising the eyebrows.

Which cranial nerve is involved in taste perception in mammals?

The glossopharyngeal nerve (cranial nerve IX) is involved in taste perception in mammals. It carries taste information from the back of the tongue and throat to the brain.

What is the role of the vagus nerve in mammals?

The vagus nerve (cranial nerve X) is involved in regulating several vital functions in mammals, including heart rate, digestion, and respiration. It innervates the heart, lungs, digestive organs, and other internal organs.

Which cranial nerve controls the movement of the tongue in mammals?

The hypoglossal nerve (cranial nerve XII) controls the movement of the tongue in mammals. It innervates the muscles of the tongue, enabling functions such as speech, swallowing, and food manipulation.

Are cranial nerves in mammals similar to those in other vertebrates?

Yes, cranial nerves in mammals share similarities with cranial nerves in other vertebrates, including reptiles, birds, and fish. However, there may be some variations in specific functions or structures among different species within the mammalian class.

References

  1. Sonne J, Lopez-Ojeda W. Neuroanatomy, Cranial Nerve. [Updated 2022 Dec 9]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470353/
  2. https://veteriankey.com/cranial-nerves/
  3. https://teachmeanatomy.info/head/cranial-nerves/summary/
  4. https://escholarship.org/content/qt73h6x87t/qt73h6x87t_noSplash_da2b487016765458fb131118c94d1d5d.pdf?t=qcdx24
  5. https://university.pressbooks.pub/test456/chapter/cranial-nerves/
  6. https://biologyeducare.com/cranial-nerves/
  7. https://www.lecturio.com/concepts/overview-of-the-cranial-nerves/
  8. https://www.thoughtco.com/cranial-nerves-function-373179
  9. https://www.biologydiscussion.com/neural-control/cranial-nerves-in-man-origin-nature-distribution-and-function/5040
  10. https://biologydictionary.net/cranial-nerves/

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