Cranial Nerves

Brief Overview of Cranial Nerves

The peripheral nervous system has 12 pairs of cranial nerves that control much of the motor and sensory functions of the head and neck.

Learning Objectives

Describe the function of the cranial nerves

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The cranial nerves serve functions such as smell, sight, eye movement, and feeling in the face. The cranial nerves also control balance, hearing, and swallowing.
  • The twelve cranial nerves, in order from I to XII are: olfactory nerve, optic nerve, oculomotor nerve, trochlear nerve, trigeminal nerve, abducens nerve, facial nerve, vestibulocochlear nerve, glossopharengeal nerve, vagus nerve, spinal accessory nerve, and hypoglossal nerve.
  • The vagus nerve (X) has many branches and is responsible for tasks including heart rate, gastrointestinal peristalsis, sweating, and muscle movements in the mouth, including speech and keeping the larynx open for breathing.

Key Terms

  • innervate: To supply an organ or other body part with nerves.
  • peripheral nervous system: The nerves and ganglia outside of the brain and spinal cord.
  • peristalsis: A radially symmetrical contraction and relaxation of muscles that propagates in a wave down a tube (such as the gastrointestinal tract) in an anterograde direction.

Cranial nerves are the nerves that emerge directly from the brain (including the brainstem). In contrast, spinal nerves emerge from segments of the spinal cord. Cranial nerves relay information between the brain and parts of the body, primarily to and from regions of the head and neck.

Cranial Nerve Anatomy and Terminology

Spinal nerves emerge sequentially from the spinal cord with the spinal nerve closest to the head (C1) emerging in the space above the first cervical vertebra. The cranial nerves emerge from the central nervous system above this level.

Each cranial nerve is paired and is present on both sides. The numbering of the cranial nerves is based on the order in which they emerge from the brain, front to back (brainstem).

The terminal nerves, olfactory nerves (I) and optic nerves (II) emerge from the cerebrum or forebrain, and the remaining ten pairs arise from the brainstem, which is the lower part of the brain. The cranial nerves are considered components of the peripheral nervous system.

However, on a structural level, the olfactory, optic, and terminal nerves are more accurately considered part of the central nervous system.

The twelve cranial nerves are shown in the figure below followed by brief descriptions.

This is a top view of a brain. The locations of the 12 cranial nerves within the brain are identified: the olfactory nerve, optic nerve, oculomotor nerve, trochlear nerve, trigeminal nerve, abducens nerve, facial nerve, vestibulocochlear nerve, glossopharengeal nerve, vagus nerve, spinal accessory nerve, and hypoglossal nerve.

The cranial nerves: The locations of the cranial nerves within the brain.

  • The olfactory nerve (I): This is instrumental for the sense of smell, it is one of the few nerves that are capable of regeneration.
  • The optic nerve (II): This nerve carries visual information from the retina of the eye to the brain.
  • The oculomotor nerve (III): This controls most of the eye’s movements, the constriction of the pupil, and maintains an open eyelid.
  • The trochlear nerve (IV): A motor nerve that innervates the superior oblique muscle of the eye, which controls rotational movement.
  • The trigeminal nerve (V): This is responsible for sensation and motor function in the face and mouth.
  • The abducens nerve (VI): A motor nerve that innervates the lateral rectus muscle of the eye, which controls lateral movement.
  • The facial nerve (VII): This controls the muscles of facial expression, and functions in the conveyance of taste sensations from the anterior two-thirds of the tongue and oral cavity.
  • The vestibulocochlear nerve (VIII): This is responsible for transmitting sound and equilibrium (balance) information from the inner ear to the brain.
  • The glossopharyngeal nerve (IX): This nerve receives sensory information from the tonsils, the pharynx, the middle ear, and the rest of the tongue.
  • The vagus nerve (X): This is responsible for many tasks, including heart rate, gastrointestinal peristalsis, sweating, and muscle movements in the mouth, including speech and keeping the larynx open for breathing.
  • The spinal accessory (XI): This nerve controls specific muscles of the shoulder and neck.
  • The hypoglossal nerve (XII): This nerve controls the tongue movements of speech, food manipulation, and swallowing.

There are many mnemonic devices to remember the cranial nerves. One that may be helpful is: Old Opie Occasionally Tries Trigonometry And Feels Very Gloomy, Vague And Hypoactive.

Olfactory (I) Nerve

The olfactory nerve, or cranial nerve I, is the first of 12 cranial nerves and is responsible for the sense of smell.

Learning Objectives

Describe the olfactory nerve (cranial nerve I)

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The olfactory nerve consists of a collection of many sensory nerve fibers that extend from the olfactory epithelium to the olfactory bulb.
  • Olfactory receptors within the olfactory mucosa in the nasal cavity receive information about smells that travel to the brain through the cranial nerve that extends from the olfactory epithelium to the olfactory bulb.
  • Olfactory receptor neurons continue to emerge throughout life and extend new axons to the olfactory bulb.
  • The olfactory nerve is the shortest of the 12 cranial nerves and only one of two cranial nerves (the other being the optic nerve) that do not join with the brainstem.

Key Terms

  • olfactory receptors: Expressed in the cell membranes of olfactory receptor neurons, these are responsible for the detection of odor molecules. Activated olfactory receptors are the initial player in a signal transduction cascade that ultimately produces a nerve impulse that is transmitted to the brain. The olfactory receptors form a multigene family consisting of over 900 genes in humans and 1,500 genes in mice.
  • cribriform plate: A sieve-like structure of the ethmoid bone that supports the olfactory bulb.
  • olfactory tract: A narrow white band made of a bundle of axons connecting the olfactory bulb to several brain regions.
  • ethmoid bone: An unpaired bone in the skull that separates the nasal cavity from the brain.
  • olfactory mucosa: Located in the upper region of the nasal cavity, this is made up of the olfactory epithelium and the underlying lamina propria, connective tissue containing fibroblasts, blood vessels, Bowman’s glands, and bundles of fine axons from the olfactory neurons.
This is a sagittal section view of a human head that displays the olfactory bulb.

Olfactory bulb: Sagittal section of human head showing the olfactory bulb.

The olfactory nerve, or cranial nerve I, is the first of the 12 cranial nerves. It is instrumental in the sense of smell. The olfactory nerve is the shortest of the 12 cranial nerves and only one of two cranial nerves (the other being the optic nerve) that do not join with the brainstem.

The specialized olfactory receptor neurons of the olfactory nerve are located in the olfactory mucosa of the upper parts of the nasal cavity. The olfactory nerves consist of a collection of many sensory nerve fibers that extend from the olfactory epithelium to the olfactory bulb, passing through the many openings of the cribriform plate of the ethmoid bone.

Olfactory receptor neurons continue to emerge throughout life and extend new axons to the olfactory bulb. Olfactory-ensheathing glia wrap bundles of these axons and are thought to facilitate their passage into the central nervous system.

The sense of smell (olfaction) arises from the stimulation of olfactory (or odorant) receptors by small molecules of different spatial, chemical, and electrical properties that pass over the nasal epithelium in the nasal cavity during inhalation. These interactions are transduced into electrical activity in the olfactory bulb, which then transmits the electrical activity to other parts of the olfactory system and the rest of the central nervous system via the olfactory tract.

Optic (II) Nerve

The optic nerve (cranial nerve II) receives visual information from photoreceptors in the retina and transmits it to the brain.

Learning Objectives

Describe the optic nerve (cranial nerve II)

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The optic nerve is considered part of the central nervous system. The myelin on the optic nerve is produced by oligodendrocytes rather than Schwann cells and it is encased in the meningeal layers instead of the standard endoneurium, perineurium, and epineurium of the peripheral nervous system.
  • The optic nerve travels through the optic canal, partially decussates in the optic chiasm, and terminates in the lateral geniculate nucleus where information is transmitted to the visual cortex.
  • The axons responsible for reflexive eye movements terminate in the pretectal nucleus.

Key Terms

  • oligodendrocyte: A type of neuroglia that provides support and insulation to axons in the central nervous system.
  • retina: The thin layer of cells at the back of the eyeball where light is converted into neural signals sent to the brain.
  • optic nerve: Either of a pair of nerves that carry visual information from the retina to the brain.
  • visual cortex: The visual cortex of the brain is the part of the cerebral cortex responsible for processing visual information. It is located in the occipital lobe, in the back of the brain.
  • pretectal nucleus: This mediates behavioral responses to acute changes in ambient light, such as the pupillary light reflex and the optokinetic reflex.

The optic nerve is also known as cranial nerve II. It transmits visual information from the retina to the brain.

Each human optic nerve contains between 770,000 and 1.7 million nerve fibers. The eye’s blind spot is a result of the absence of photoreceptors in the area of the retina where the optic nerve leaves the eye.

This is an illustration of the brain that highlights the optic nerve and optic tract. It shows how the eyes are connected to the optic nerve and optic tract, with these nerves moving back into the brain by crossing in the optic chiasm and connecting to the midbrain and occipital lobes.

Optic nerve: An illustration of the brain highlighting the optic nerve and optic tract.

The optic nerve is the second of twelve paired cranial nerves. It is considered by physiologists to be part of the central nervous system, as it is derived from an outpouching of the diencephalon during embryonic development.

As a consequence, the fibers are covered with myelin produced by oligodendrocytes, rather than Schwann cells that are found in the peripheral nervous system. The optic nerve is ensheathed in all three meningeal layers (dura, arachnoid, and pia mater) rather than the epineurium, perineurium, and endoneurium found in the peripheral nerves.

The fiber tracks of the mammalian central nervous system are incapable of regeneration. As a consequence, optic nerve damage produces irreversible blindness.

The optic nerve leaves the orbit, which is also known as an eye socket, via the optic canal, running posteromedially toward the optic chiasm, where there is a partial decussation (crossing) of fibers from the nasal visual fields of both eyes.

Most of the axons of the optic nerve terminate in the lateral geniculate nucleus (where information is relayed to the visual cortex), while other axons terminate in the pretectal nucleus and are involved in reflexive eye movements.

The optic nerve transmits all visual information including brightness perception, color perception, and contrast. It also conducts the visual impulses that are responsible for two important neurological reflexes: the light reflex and the accommodation reflex.

The light reflex refers to the constriction of both pupils that occurs when light is shone into either eye; the accommodation reflex refers to the swelling of the lens of the eye that occurs when one looks at a near object, as in reading.

Oculomotor (III) Nerve

The oculomoter nerve (cranial nerve III) controls eye movement, such as constriction of the pupil and open eyelids.

Learning Objectives

Describe the oculomotor nerve (cranial nerve III)

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The oculomotor nerve is the third paired cranial nerve.
  • The oculomotor nerve contains two nuclei, including the Edinger-Westphal nucleus that supplies parasympathetic nerve fibers to the eye to control pupil constriction and accommodation.
  • The oculomotor nerve originates at the superior colliculus and enters through the superior orbital fissure to control the levator palpebrae superioris muscles that hold the eyelids open.

Key Terms

  • levator palpebrae superioris: A muscle that elevates the upper eyelid.
  • superior colliculus: The primary integrating center for eye movements.
  • cavernous sinus: A venous channel found between layers of dura mater in the brain.
  • tentorium cerebelli: An extension of the dura mater that separates the cerebellum from the inferior portion of the occipital lobes.
  • superior orbital fissure: The superior orbital fissure is a foramen in the skull, although strictly it is more of a cleft, lying between the lesser and greater wings of the sphenoid bone.
  • plexus: A network or interwoven mass, especially of nerves, blood vessels, or lymphatic vessels.

The oculomotor nerve is the third paired cranial nerve. It enters the orbit via the superior orbital fissure and controls most of the eye’s movements, including constriction of the pupil and maintaining an open eyelid by innervating the levator palpebrae superiors muscle.

The occulomotor nerve is derived from the basal plate of the embryonic midbrain. Cranial nerves IV and VI also participate in control of eye movement.

There are two nuclei for the oculomotor nerve:

  1. The oculomotor nucleus originates at the level of the superior colliculus. The muscles it controls are the striated muscle in the levator palpebrae superioris and all extraocular muscles, except for the superior oblique muscle and the lateral rectus muscle.
  2. The Edinger-Westphal nucleus supplies parasympathetic fibers to the eye via the ciliary ganglion, and controls the pupillae muscle (affecting pupil constriction) and the ciliary muscle (affecting accommodation).

Sympathetic postganglionic fibers also join the nerve from the plexus on the internal carotid artery in the wall of the cavernous sinus and are distributed through the nerve, for example, to the smooth muscle of levator palpebrae superioris.

Emergence from Brain

On emerging from the brain, the oculomotor nerve is invested with a sheath of pia mater and enclosed in a prolongation from the arachnoid mater. It passes between the superior cerebellar and posterior cerebral arteries, and then pierces the dura mater anterior and lateral to the posterior clinoid process (to give attachment to the tectorium cerebella), passing between the free and attached borders of the tentorium cerebelli.

It then runs along the lateral wall of the cavernous sinus, above the other orbital nerves, receiving in its course one or two filaments from the cavernous plexus of the sympathetic nervous system, and a communicating branch from the ophthalmic division of the trigeminal nerve.

It then divides into two branches that enter the orbit through the superior orbital fissure, between the two heads of the lateral rectus (a muscle on the lateral side of the eyeball in the orbit). Here the nerve is placed below the trochlear nerve and the frontal and lacrimal branches of the ophthalmic nerve, while the nasociliary nerve is placed between its two rami (the superior and inferior branch of oculomotor nerve).

This is an top view of the brain with the cranial nerves identified within it. The oculomotor nerve is the third nerve from the front of the brain, coming after the olfactory and optic nerves.

Cranial nerves: Image of cranial nerves showing the position of the oculomotor nerve.

Trochlear (IV) Nerve

The trochlear nerve (cranial nerve IV) is a motor nerve that innervates a single muscle: the superior oblique muscle of the eye.

Learning Objectives

Describe the trochlear nerve (cranial nerve IV)

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The trochlear nerve innervates the superior oblique muscle of the eye.
  • The trochlear nerve contains the smallest number of axons of all the cranial nerves and has the greatest intracranial length.
  • The two major clinical syndromes that can arise from damage to the trochlear nerve are vertical and torsional diplopia.

Key Terms

  • contralateral: On the opposite side of the body.
  • cerebral aqueduct: The channel in the brain that connects the third ventricle to the fourth ventricle. Also called the aqueduct of Sylvius, it is surrounded by periaqueductal gray matter.

The trochlear nerve (cranial nerve IV) is a motor nerve that innervates a single muscle: the superior oblique muscle of the eye.

This is a drawing of the trocheal nerve that shows where it innervates the superior oblique muscle.

The trochlear nerve: The trocheal nerve and where it innervates.

The trochlear nerve is unique among the cranial nerves in several respects.

  • It is the smallest nerve in terms of the number of axons it contains and it has the greatest intracranial length.
  • Other than the optic nerve (cranial nerve II), it is the only cranial nerve that decussates (crosses to the other side) before innervating its target.
  • It is the only cranial nerve that exits from the dorsal aspect of the brainstem.

The nucleus of the trochlear nerve is located in the caudal mesencephalon beneath the cerebral aqueduct. It is immediately below the nucleus of the oculomotor nerve (III) in the rostral mesencephalon.

The trochlear nucleus is unique in that its axons run dorsally and cross the midline before emerging from the brainstem—so a lesion of the trochlear nucleus affects the contralateral eye. Lesions of all other cranial nuclei affect the ipsilateral side (except of course the optic nerve, cranial nerve II, which innervates both eyes).

Homologous trochlear nerves are found in all jawed vertebrates. The unique features of the trochlear nerve, including its dorsal exit from the brainstem and its contralateral innervation, are seen in the primitive brains of sharks.

The human trochlear nerve is derived from the basal plate of the embryonic midbrain.

Clinical Syndromes

There are two major clinical syndromes that can manifest through damage to the trochlear nerve:

  • Vertical diplopia: Injury to the trochlear nerve causes weakness of downward eye movement with consequent vertical diplopia (double vision).
  • Torsional diplopia: Weakness of intorsion results in torsional diplopia, in which two different visual fields, tilted with respect to each other, are seen at the same time. To compensate for this, patients with trochlear nerve palsies tilt their heads to the opposite side, in order to fuse the two images into a single visual field.

The clinical syndromes can originate from both peripheral and central lesions. A peripheral lesion is damage to the bundle of nerves, in contrast to a central lesion, which is damage to the trochlear nucleus.

Trigeminal (V) Nerve

The trigeminal nerve is the fifth cranial nerve and it is responsible for sensation and motor function in the face and mouth.

Learning Objectives

Describe the trigeminal nerve (cranial nerve V)

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The sensory function of the trigeminal nerve is to provide tactile, motion, position, and pain sensations for the face and mouth; its motor function activates the muscles of the jaw, mouth, and inner ear.
  • The trigeminal nerve has three major branches on each side—the opthalmic nerve, maxillary nerve, and mandibular nerve—that converge on the trigeminal ganglion.
  • The trigeminal ganglion is analogous to the dorsal root ganglia of the spinal cord, which contain the cell bodies of incoming sensory fibers from the rest of the body.

Key Terms

  • trigeminal ganglion: The trigeminal ganglion (also called the Gasserian ganglion, semilunar ganglion, or Gasser’s ganglion) is a sensory ganglion of the trigeminal nerve (cranial nerve V) that occupies a cavity (Meckel’s cave) in the dura mater, covering the trigeminal impression near the apex of the petrous part of the temporal bone.
  • trigeminal nerve: The nerve responsible for sensation and motor function in the face and mouth.

The trigeminal nerve (cranial nerve V), and it contains both sensory and motor fibers. It is responsible for sensation in the face and certain motor functions such as biting, chewing, and swallowing.

This is a schematic illustration of the trigeminal nerve (labeled as sensory root in the illustration) that shows the structures it connects to in the face and mouth.

Trigeminal nerve: Schematic illustration of the trigeminal nerve (labeled Sensory root above) and the structures it innervates in the face and mouth.

The sensory function of the trigeminal nerve is to provide the tactile, motion, position, and pain sensations of the face and mouth. The motor function activates the muscles of the jaw, mouth, and inner ear.

Structure

The trigeminal nerve is the largest of the cranial nerves. Its name, trigeminal, means three twins. It is derived from the fact that each nerve, one on each side of the pons, has three major branches: the ophthalmic nerve (V1 in the illustration below), the maxillary nerve (V2), and the mandibular nerve (V3).

The ophthalmic and maxillary nerves are purely sensory. The mandibular nerve has both sensory and motor functions.

The three branches converge on the trigeminal ganglion that is located within the trigeminal cave in the brain; it contains the cell bodies of incoming sensory nerve fibers. The trigeminal ganglion is analogous to the dorsal root ganglia of the spinal cord, which contain the cell bodies of incoming sensory fibers from the rest of the body.

This an illustration of the face, divided into three colored areas that show how the face is innervated by the trigeminal nerve. The ophthalmic nerve branch (V1) innervates the bright red area, the maxillary nerve branch (V2) innervates the light red area, and the mandibular nerve branch (V3) innervates the yellow area.

Areas of the face innervated by the trigeminal nerve: The ophthalmic nerve branch (V1) innervates the bright red area, the maxillary nerve branch (V2) innervates the light red area, and the mandibular nerve branch (V3) innervates the yellow area.

From the trigeminal ganglion, a single large sensory root enters the brainstem at the level of the pons. Immediately adjacent to the sensory root, a smaller motor root emerges from the pons at the same level.

Motor fibers pass through the trigeminal ganglion on their way to peripheral muscles, but their cell bodies are located in the nucleus of the trigeminal nerve, deep within the pons.

Function

The sensory function of the trigeminal nerve is to provide tactile, proprioceptive, and nociceptive afferents to the face and mouth. The motor component of the mandibular division (V3) of the trigeminal nerve controls the movement of eight muscles, including the four muscles of mastication: the masseter, the temporal, and the medial and lateral pterygoids.

The other four muscles are the tensor veli palatini, the mylohyoid, the anterior belly of the digastric, and the tensor tympani. With the exception of the tensor tympani, all of these muscles are involved in biting, chewing and swallowing, and all have bilateral cortical representation.

Abducens (VI) Nerve

The abducens nerve (cranial nerve VI) controls the lateral movement of the eye through innervation of the lateral rectus muscle.

Learning Objectives

Describe the abducens nerve (cranial nerve VI)

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The abducens nerve exits the brainstem at the junction of the pons and the medulla and runs upward to reach the eye, traveling between the dura and the skull.
  • The long course of the abducens nerve between the brainstem and the eye makes it vulnerable to injury at many levels.
  • In most mammals besides humans, it also innervates the musculus retractor bulbi, which can retract the eye for protection.

Key Terms

  • abducens nerve: A nerve that controls the lateral rectus muscle in the eye.
  • clivus: A part of the cranium at the base of the skull. It forms a gradual sloping process at the anterior-most portion of the basilar occipital bone at its junction with the sphenoid bone.
  • petrous temporal bone: A pyramid-shaped bone that is wedged in at the base of the skull between the sphenoid and occipital bones and is part of the endocranium.
  • lateral rectus muscle: A muscle in the orbit. It is one of six extraocular muscles that control the movements of the eye (abduction in this case) and the only muscle innervated by the abducens nerve, cranial nerve VI, functioning to bring the pupil away from the midline of the body.

The abducens nerve (cranial nerve VI) is a somatic efferent nerve that, in humans, controls the movement of a single muscle: the lateral rectus muscle of the eye that moves the eye horizontally. In most other mammals it also innervates the musculus retractor bulbi, which can retract the eye for protection. Homologous abducens nerves are found in all vertebrates except lampreys and hagfishes.

This is a schematic of the cranial nerves. In particular, it displays cranial nerve VI, the abducens nerve, and its connection from the eyes to the brainstem.

Abducens nerve: Schematic of cranial nerves showing cranial nerve VI, the abducens nerve.

The abducens nerve leaves the brainstem at the junction of the pons and the medulla, medial to the facial nerve. In order to reach the eye, it runs upward (superiorly) and then bends forward (anteriorly).

The nerve enters the subarachnoid space when it emerges from the brainstem. It runs upward between the pons and the clivus, and then pierces the dura mater to run between the dura and the skull.

At the tip of the petrous temporal bone, it makes a sharp turn forward to enter the cavernous sinus. In the cavernous sinus it runs alongside the internal carotid artery. It then enters the orbit through the superior orbital fissure and innervates the lateral rectus muscle of the eye.

The long course of the abducens nerve between the brainstem and the eye makes it vulnerable to injury at many levels. For example, fractures of the petrous temporal bone can selectively damage the nerve, as can aneurysms of the intracavernous carotid artery.

Mass lesions that push the brainstem downward can damage the nerve by stretching it between the point where it emerges from the pons and the point where it hooks over the petrous temporal bone.

Facial (VII) Nerve

The facial nerve (cranial nerve VII) determines facial expressions and the taste sensations of the tongue.

Learning Objectives

Describe the facial nerve (cranial nerve VII)

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The facial nerve (cranial nerve VII) is responsible for the muscles that determine facial expression, as well as the sensation of taste in the front of the tongue and oral cavity.
  • The facial nerve’s motor component begins in the facial nerve nucleus in the pons, and the sensory component begins in the nervus intermedius. The nerve then runs through the facial canal, passes through the parotid gland, and divides into five branches.
  • Voluntary facial movements, such as wrinkling the brow, showing teeth, frowning, closing the eyes tightly (inability to do so is called lagophthalmos), pursing the lips, and puffing out the cheeks, all test the facial nerve.

Key Terms

  • nervus intermedius: A part of the facial nerve (cranial nerve VII) located between the motor component of the facial nerve and the vestibulocochlear nerve (cranial nerve VIII). It contains the sensory and parasympathetic fibers of the facial nerve.
  • Bell’s Palsy: Bell’s palsy is a form of facial paralysis resulting from a dysfunction of the cranial nerve VII (the facial nerve) that results in the inability to control facial muscles on the affected side.
This is a drawing of a skull with the facial nerve shown. The facial nerve is shown branching into various parts of the face.

The facial nerve: Illustration of the facial nerve and its branches.

The facial nerve is the seventh (cranial nerve VII) of the 12, paired cranial nerves. It emerges from the brainstem between the pons and the medulla and controls the muscles of facial expression.

It also functions in the conveyance of taste sensations from the anterior two-thirds of the tongue and oral cavity, and it supplies preganglionic parasympathetic fibers to several head and neck ganglia.

Location

The motor part of the facial nerve arises from the facial nerve nucleus in the pons, while the sensory part of the facial nerve arises from the nervus intermedius. The motor and sensory parts of the facial nerve enter the petrous temporal bone into the internal auditory meatus (intimately close to the inner ear), then runs a tortuous course (including two tight turns) through the facial canal, 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 (this is the responsibility of cranial nerve IX, the glossopharyngeal nerve). The facial nerve forms the geniculate ganglion prior to entering the facial canal.

The path of the facial nerve can be divided into six segments.

  1. The intracranial (cisternal) segment.
  2. The meatal segment (brainstem to internal auditory canal).
  3. The labyrinthine segment (internal auditory canal to geniculate ganglion),
  4. The tympanic segment (from geniculate ganglion to pyramidal eminence).
  5. The mastoid segment (from pyramidal eminence to stylomastoid foramen).
  6. The extratemporal segment (from stylomastoid foramen to post parotid branches).

Function

This is a color photograph of a person attempting to show his teeth and raise his eyebrows with Bell's palsy on his right side (left side of the image).

Bell’s Palsy: A person attempting to show his teeth and raise his eyebrows with Bell’s palsy on his right side (left side of the image).

Voluntary facial movements, such as wrinkling the brow, showing teeth, frowning, closing the eyes tightly (inability to do so is called lagophthalmos), pursing the lips, and puffing out the cheeks, all test the facial nerve. There should be no noticeable asymmetry.

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

Lower motor neuron lesions can result in a cranial nerve VII palsy (Bell’s palsy is the idiopathic form of facial nerve palsy), manifested as both upper and lower facial weakness on the same side of the lesion.

Taste can be tested on the anterior 2/3 of the tongue. This can be tested with a swab dipped in a flavored solution, or with electronic stimulation (similar to putting your tongue on a battery).

In regards to the corneal reflex, the afferent arc is mediated by the general sensory afferents of the trigeminal nerve. The efferent arc occurs via the facial nerve.

The reflex involves the consensual blinking of both eyes in response to stimulation of one eye. This is due to the facial nerve’s innervation of the muscles of facial expression, namely the orbicularis oculi, responsible for blinking. Thus, the corneal reflex effectively tests the proper functioning of both cranial nerves V and VII.

Vestibulocochlear (VIII) Nerve

The vestibulocochlear nerve (cranial nerve VIII) carries information about hearing and balance.

Learning Objectives

Describe the vestibulocochlear nerve (cranial nerve VIII)

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The vestibulocochlear nerve comprises the cochlear nerve that transmits hearing information, and the vestibular nerve that transmits balance information.
  • The cochlear nerve travels away from the cochlea of the inner ear where it starts as the spiral ganglia.
  • The vestibular nerve travels from the vestibular system of the inner ear.

Key Terms

  • cochlear nerve: A sensory nerve that conducts information about the environment to the brain, in this case acoustic energy impinging on the tympanic membrane (sound waves reaching the ear drum). The cochlear nerve arises from within the cochlea and extends to the brainstem where its fibers make contact with the cochlear nucleus, the next stage of neural processing in the auditory system.
  • vestibulocochlear nerve: Also known as the auditory vestibular nerve, this is the eighth of twelve cranial nerves, and it is responsible for transmitting sound and equilibrium (balance) information from the inner ear to the brain.
  • vestibular nerve: One of the two branches of the vestibulocochlear nerve (the cochlear nerve being the other). It connects to the semicircular canals via the vestibular ganglion and receives positional information.

The vestibulocochlear nerve (also known as the auditory vestibular nerve and cranial nerve VIII) has axons that carry the modalities of hearing and equilibrium.

It consists of the cochlear nerve that carries information about hearing, and the vestibular nerve that carries information about balance.

This is the nerve along which the sensory cells (the hair cells) of the inner ear transmit information to the brain. It emerges from the pons and exits the inner skull via the internal acoustic meatus (or internal auditory meatus) in the temporal bone.

This is an illustration of the inner ear that shows its semicircular canal, hair cells, ampulla, cupula, vestibular nerve, and fluid.

Vestibular system’s semicircular canal: An illustration of the inner ear showing its semicircular canal, hair cells, ampulla, cupula, vestibular nerve, and fluid.

The vestibulocochlear nerve consists mostly of bipolar neurons and splits into two large divisions: the cochlear nerve and the vestibular nerve. The cochlear nerve travels away from the cochlea of the inner ear where it starts as the spiral ganglia.

Processes from the organ of Corti (the receptor organ for hearing) conduct afferent transmission to the spiral ganglia. It is the inner hair cells of the organ of Corti that are responsible for activating the afferent receptors in response to pressure waves reaching the basilar membrane through the transduction of sound.

The vestibular nerve travels from the vestibular system of the inner ear. The vestibular ganglion houses the cell bodies of the bipolar neurons and extends processes to five sensory organs.

Three of these are the cristae, located in the ampullae of the semicircular canals. Hair cells of the cristae activate afferent receptors in response to rotational acceleration.

The other two sensory organs supplied by the vestibular neurons are the maculae of the saccule and utricle. Hair cells of the maculae activate afferent receptors in response to linear acceleration.

The vestibulocochlear nerve has axons that carry the modalities of hearing and equilibrium. Damage to the vestibulocochlear nerve may cause hearing loss, vertigo, a false sense of motion, loss of equilibrium in dark places, nystagmus, motion sickness, and gaze-evoked tinnitus.

A benign primary intracranial tumor of vestibulocochlear nerve is called a vestibular schwannoma (also called acoustic neuroma).

Glossopharyngeal (IX) Nerve

The glossopharyngeal nerve (cranial nerve IX) serves many distinct functions, including providing sensory innervation to various  head and neck structures.

Learning Objectives

Describe the glossopharyngeal nerve (cranial nerve IX)

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The glossopharyngeal nerve (cranial nerve IX) is responsible for swallowing and the gag reflex, along with other functions.
  • The glossopharyngeal nerve receives input from the general and special sensory fibers in the back of the throat.
  • The glossopharyngeal nerve has five components: branchial motor, visceral motor, visceral sensory, general sensory, and special sensory components.

Key Terms

  • otic ganglion: A small parasympathetic ganglion located immediately below the foramen ovale in the infratemporal fossa that is associated with the glossopharyngeal nerve.
  • medulla: The lower half of the brainstem that contains the cardiac, respiratory, vomiting, and vasomotor centers and is associated with autonomic, involuntary functions such as breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure.
  • stylopharyngeus muscle: A muscle in the head that stretches between the temporal styloid process and the pharynx.

Structure

The glossopharyngeal nerve is the ninth of 12 pairs of cranial nerves. It exits the brainstem out from the sides of the upper medulla, just rostral (closer to the nose) to the vagus nerve.

This is a schematic view of various head structures, including the glossopharyngeal nerve. The glossopharyngeal nerve is seen running through the lower jaw and neck regions.

Glossopharyngeal nerve: Image of head structures including the glossopharyngeal nerve.

The motor division of the glossopharyngeal nerve is derived from the basal plate of the embryonic medulla oblongata, while the sensory division originates from the cranial neural crest.

Function

There are a number of functions of the glossopharyngeal nerve. It controls muscles in the oral cavity and upper throat, as well as part of the sense of taste and the production of saliva.

Along with taste, the glossopharyngeal nerve relays general sensations from the pharyngeal walls. The various functions of the glossopharyngeal nerve are that:

  • It receives general sensory fibers (ventral trigeminothalamic tract) from the tonsils, the pharynx, the middle ear, and the posterior 1/3 of the tongue.
  • It receives special sensory fibers (taste) from the posterior 1/3 of the tongue.
  • It receives visceral sensory fibers from the carotid bodies, carotid sinus.
  • It supplies parasympathetic fibers to the parotid gland via the otic ganglion.
  • It supplies motor fibers to the stylopharyngeus muscle.
  • It contributes to the pharyngeal plexus.

Five Functional Components

The glossopharyngeal nerve consists of five components with distinct functions:

  1. Branchial motor (special visceral efferent): Supplies the stylopharyngeus muscle.
  2. Visceral motor (general visceral efferent): Provides parasympathetic innervation of the parotid gland.
  3. Visceral sensory (general visceral afferent): Carries visceral sensory information from the carotid sinus and body.
  4. General sensory (general somatic afferent): Provides general sensory information from the skin of the external ear, internal surface of the tympanic membrane, upper pharynx, and the posterior 1/3 of the tongue.
  5. Special sensory (special afferent): Provides taste sensation from the posterior 1/3 of the tongue.

Vagus (X) Nerve

The vagus nerve (cranial nerve X) is responsible for parasympathetic output to the heart and visceral organs.

Learning Objectives

Describe the vagus nerve (cranial nerve X)

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The vagus nerve (cranial nerve X) sends information about the body’s organs to the brain and carries some motor information back to the organs.
  • The vagus nerve has axons that originate from or enter the dorsal nucleus of the vagus nerve, the nucleus ambiguus, the solitary nucleus in the medulla, and the spinal trigeminal nucleus.
  • The vagus nerve is responsible for heart rate, gastrointestinal peristalsis, and sweating, to name a few.

Key Terms

  • nucleus ambiguus: A region of histologically disparate cells located just dorsal (posterior) to the inferior olivary nucleus in the lateral portion of the upper (rostral) medulla. It receives upper motor neuron innervation directly via the corticobulbar tract.
  • Valsalva maneuver: Performed by making a moderately forceful attempt to exhale against a closed airway; this is usually done by closing one’s mouth and pinching one’s nose shut while pressing out as if blowing up a balloon.
  • solitary nucleus: Structures in the brainstem that carry and receive visceral sensation and taste from the facial (VII), glossopharyngeal (IX), and vagus (X) cranial nerves.
  • dorsal nucleus of the vagus nerve: Also called the posterior motor nucleus of vagus, this is a cranial nerve nucleus for the vagus nerve in the medulla that lies under the floor of the fourth ventricle. It mostly serves parasympathetic vagal functions in the gastrointestinal tract, lungs, and other thoracic and abdominal vagal innervations.
  • spinal trigeminal nucleus: A nucleus in the medulla that receives information about deep/crude touch, pain, and temperature from the ipsilateral face.

Vagus Nerve Anatomy

The vagus nerve, also known as the pneumogastric nerve or cranial nerve X, is the tenth of twelve paired cranial nerves. Upon leaving the medulla between the medullary pyramid and the inferior cerebellar peduncle, it extends through the jugular foramen, then passes into the carotid sheath between the internal carotid artery and the internal jugular vein below the head, to the neck, chest and abdomen, where it contributes to the innervation of the viscera.

This is a drawing of a human head and neck. The vagus nerve is seen running from the medulla to the chest.

Vagus nerve: Diagram demonstrating the course of the vagus nerve.

Besides output to the various organs in the body, the vagus nerve conveys sensory information about the state of the body’s organs to the central nervous system.  Eighty to 90% of the nerve fibers in the vagus nerve are afferent (sensory) nerves that communicate the state of the viscera to the brain.

The vagus nerve includes axons that emerge from or converge onto four nuclei of the medulla.

  • The dorsal nucleus of vagus nerve: Sends parasympathetic output to the viscera, especially the intestines.
  • The nucleus ambiguus: Sends parasympathetic output to the heart (slowing it down).
  • The solitary nucleus: Receives afferent taste information and primary afferents from visceral organs.
  • The spinal trigeminal nucleus: Receives information about deep/crude touch, pain, and temperature of the outer ear, the dura of the posterior cranial fossa, and the mucosa of the larynx.

Function

The vagus nerve supplies motor parasympathetic fibers to all the organs, except the suprarenal (adrenal) glands, from the neck down to the second segment of the transverse colon. The vagus also controls a few skeletal muscles, most notably:

  • Cricothyroid muscle.
  • Levator veli palatini muscle.
  • Salpingopharyngeus muscle.
  • Palatoglossus muscle.
  • Palatopharyngeus muscle.
  • Superior, middle, and inferior pharyngeal constrictors.
  • Muscles of the larynx (speech).

This means that the vagus nerve is responsible for such varied tasks as heart rate, gastrointestinal peristalsis, sweating, and quite a few muscle movements in the mouth, including speech (via the recurrent laryngeal nerve), swallowing, and keeping the larynx open for breathing (via action of the posterior cricoarytenoid muscle, the only abductor of the vocal folds).

It also has some afferent fibers that innervate the inner (canal) portion of the outer ear, via the auricular branch (also known as Alderman’s nerve) and part of the meninges. This explains why a person may cough when tickled on the ear (such as when trying to remove ear wax with a cotton swab).

Afferent vagus nerve fibers that innervate the pharynx and back of the throat are responsible for the gag reflex. In addition, 5-HT3 receptor-mediated afferent vagus stimulation in the gut due to gastroenteritis and other insults is a cause of vomiting.

Cardiovascular Influence

Parasympathetic innervation of the heart is partially controlled by the vagus nerve and is shared by the thoracic ganglia. Activation of the vagus nerve typically leads to a reduction in heart rate and/or blood pressure.

This occurs commonly in cases of viral gastroenteritis, acute cholecystitis, or in response to stimuli such as the Valsalva maneuver or pain. Excessive activation of the vagal nerve during emotional stress can also cause vasovagal syncope due to a sudden drop in cardiac output, causing cerebral hypoperfusion.

Accessory (XI) Nerve

The accessory nerve (cranial nerve XI) controls the muscles of the shoulder and neck.

Learning Objectives

Describe the accessory nerve (cranial nerve XI)

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Cranial nerve XI is responsible for tilting and rotating the head, elevating the shoulders, and adducting the scapula.
  • Most of the fibers of the accessory nerve originate in neurons situated in the upper spinal cord. The fibers that make up the accessory nerve enter the skull through the foramen magnum and proceed to exit the jugular foramen with cranial nerves IX and X.
  • Due to its unusual course, the accessory nerve is the only nerve that enters and exits the skull.

Key Terms

  • sternocleidomastoid: A paired muscle in the superficial layers of the side of the neck. Its actions of the muscle are rotation of the head to the opposite side and flexion of the neck.
  • trapezius: A large vertebrate skeletal muscle divided into an ascending, descending, and transverse portion, attaching the neck and central spine to the outer extremity of the scapula; it functions in scapular elevation, adduction, and depression.
  • accessory nerve: The 11th cranial nerve of higher vertebrates, it controls the pharynx and the muscles of the upper chest and shoulders.
  • foramen: An opening, an orifice, or a short passage.

Anatomic Description

The accessory nerve (cranial nerve XI) controls the sternocleidomastoid and trapezius muscles of the shoulder and neck. It begins in the central nervous system (CNS) and exits the cranium through a foramen.

Unlike the other 11 cranial nerves, the accessory nerve begins outside the skull. In fact, most of the fibers of the nerve originate in neurons situated in the upper spinal cord.

This is a cutaway profile of a head and throat, that shows the accessory nerve. The profile shows how upon exiting the skull via the jugular foramen, the spinal accessory nerve pierces the sternocleidomastoid muscle before terminating on the trapezius muscle.

The accessory nerve: Upon exiting the skull via the jugular foramen, the spinal accessory nerve pierces the sternocleidomastoid muscle before terminating on the trapezius muscle.

The fibers that make up the accessory nerve enter the skull through the foramen magnum and proceed to exit the jugular foramen with cranial nerves IX and X. Due to its unusual course, the accessory nerve is the only nerve that enters and exits the skull.

Traditional descriptions of the accessory nerve divide it into two components: a spinal component and a cranial component. However, more modern characterizations of the nerve regard the cranial component as separate and part of the vagus nerve.

Therefore, in contemporary discussions of the accessory nerve, it is common to disregard the cranial component when referencing the accessory nerve and assume reference to the spinal accessory nerve.

Accessory Nerve Function

The accessory nerve provides motor innervation from the CNS to the sternocleidomastoid and trapezius muscles of the neck. The sternocleidomastoid muscle tilts and rotates the head, while the trapezius muscle has several actions on the scapula, including shoulder elevation and adduction of the scapula.

During neurological examinations, the function of the spinal accessory nerve is often measured by testing the range of motion and strength of the aforementioned muscles. Limited range of motion or diminished muscle strength often indicates injury of the accessory nerve.

Patients with spinal accessory nerve palsy may exhibit signs of lower motor neuron disease, such as atrophy and fasciculations of both the sternocleidomastoid and trapezius muscles.

Hypoglossal (XII) Nerve

The hypoglossal nerve (cranial nerve XII) controls the muscles of the tongue.

Learning Objectives

Describe the hypoglossal nerve (cranial nerve XII)

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • It controls tongue movements of speech, food manipulation, and swallowing.
  • While the hypoglossal nerve controls the tongue’s involuntary activities of swallowing to clear the mouth of saliva, most of the functions it controls are voluntary, meaning that the execution of these activities requires conscious thought.
  • Proper function of the hypoglossal nerve is important for executing tongue movements associated with speech. Many languages require specific uses of the nerve to create unique speech sounds, which may contribute to the difficulties some adults encounter when learning a new language.

Key Terms

  • digastric muscle: A small muscle located under the jaw.
  • hypoglossal nerve: The twelfth cranial nerve (XII) controls the muscles of the tongue.
  • olivary body: Located on the anterior surface of the medulla, lateral to the pyramid.
  • medullary pyramid: Paired white matter structures of the brainstem’s medulla oblongata that contain motor fibers of the corticospinal and corticobulbar tracts.

Structure and Location

The hypoglossal nerve is the twelfth cranial nerve (XII) and innervates all extrinsic and intrinsic muscles of the tongue, except for the palatoglossus. The hypoglossal nerve emerges from the medulla oblongata in the preolivary sulcus where it separates the olive (olivary body) and the pyramid (medullary pyramid).

It goes on to traverse the hypoglossal canal and, upon emerging, it branches and merges with a branch from the anterior ramus of C1. It passes behind the vagus nerve and between the internal carotid artery and internal jugular vein which lies on the carotid sheath. After passing deep to the posterior belly of the digastric muscle it proceeds to the submandibular region to enter the tongue.

image

Hypoglossal nerve: Schematic image of the hypoglossal nerve and the structures it innervates.

Function

The hypoglossal nerve controls tongue movements of speech, food manipulation, and swallowing. It supplies motor fibers to all of the muscles of the tongue, with the exception of the palatoglossus muscle, which is innervated by the vagus nerve (cranial nerve X) or, according to some classifications, by fibers from the glossopharyngeal nerve (cranial nerve IX) that hitchhike within the vagus.

While the hypoglossal nerve controls the tongue’s involuntary activities of swallowing to clear the mouth of saliva, most of the functions it controls are voluntary, meaning that the execution of these activities requires conscious thought.

Proper function of the hypoglossal nerve is important for executing the tongue movements associated with speech. Many languages require specific and sometimes unusual uses of the nerve to create unique speech sounds, which may contribute to the difficulties some adults encounter when learning a new language. Several corticonuclear-originating fibers supply innervation and aid in the unconscious movements required upon engaging in speech and articulation.

Progressive bulbar palsy is a neuromuscular atrophy associated with the combined lesions of the hypoglossal nucleus and the nucleus ambiguous, upon atrophy of the motor nerves of the pons and medulla. This condition causes dysfunctional tongue movements that lead to speech and chewing impairments and swallowing difficulties. Tongue muscle atrophy may also occur.