Brain Hemispheres

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the relationship between the two hemispheres of the brain

The central nervous system (CNS), consists of the brain and the spinal cord.

Brain

The brain is a remarkably complex organ comprised of billions of interconnected neurons and glia. It is a bilateral, or two-sided, structure that can be separated into distinct lobes. Each lobe is associated with certain types of functions, but, ultimately, all of the areas of the brain interact with one another to provide the foundation for our thoughts and behaviors.

Spinal Cord

It can be said that the spinal cord is what connects the brain to the outside world. Because of it, the brain can act. The spinal cord is like a relay station, but a very smart one. It not only routes messages to and from the brain, but it also has its own system of automatic processes, called reflexes.

The top of the spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that merges with the brain stem, where the basic processes of life are controlled, such as breathing and digestion. In the opposite direction, the spinal cord ends just below the ribs—contrary to what we might expect, it does not extend all the way to the base of the spine.

The spinal cord is functionally organized in 30 segments, corresponding with the vertebrae. Each segment is connected to a specific part of the body through the peripheral nervous system. Nerves branch out from the spine at each vertebra. Sensory nerves bring messages in; motor nerves send messages out to the muscles and organs. Messages travel to and from the brain through every segment.

Some sensory messages are immediately acted on by the spinal cord, without any input from the brain. Withdrawal from a hot object and the knee jerk are two examples. When a sensory message meets certain parameters, the spinal cord initiates an automatic reflex. The signal passes from the sensory nerve to a simple processing center, which initiates a motor command. Seconds are saved, because messages don’t have to go the brain, be processed, and get sent back. In matters of survival, the spinal reflexes allow the body to react extraordinarily fast.

The spinal cord is protected by bony vertebrae and cushioned in cerebrospinal fluid, but injuries still occur. When the spinal cord is damaged in a particular segment, all lower segments are cut off from the brain, causing paralysis. Therefore, the lower on the spine damage is, the fewer functions an injured individual will lose.

Neuroplasticity

Bob Woodruff, a reporter for ABC, suffered a traumatic brain injury after a bomb exploded next to the vehicle he was in while covering a news story in Iraq. As a consequence of these injuries, Woodruff experienced many cognitive deficits including difficulties with memory and language. However, over time and with the aid of intensive amounts of cognitive and speech therapy, Woodruff has shown an incredible recovery of function (Fernandez, 2008, October 16).

One of the factors that made this recovery possible was neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to how the nervous system can change and adapt. Neuroplasticity can occur in a variety of ways including personal experiences, developmental processes, or, as in Woodruff’s case, in response to some sort of damage or injury that has occurred. Neuroplasticity can involve creation of new synapses, pruning of synapses that are no longer used, changes in glial cells, and even the birth of new neurons. Because of neuroplasticity, our brains are constantly changing and adapting, and while our nervous system is most plastic when we are very young, as Woodruff’s case suggests, it is still capable of remarkable changes later in life.

Two Hemispheres

The surface of the brain, known as the cerebral cortex, is very uneven, characterized by a distinctive pattern of folds or bumps, known as gyri (singular: gyrus), and grooves, known as sulci (singular: sulcus), shown in Figure 1. These gyri and sulci form important landmarks that allow us to separate the brain into functional centers. The most prominent sulcus, known as the longitudinal fissure, is the deep groove that separates the brain into two halves or hemispheres: the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere.

An illustration of the brain’s exterior surface shows the ridges and depressions, and the deep fissure that runs through the center.

Figure 1. The surface of the brain is covered with gyri and sulci. A deep sulcus is called a fissure, such as the longitudinal fissure that divides the brain into left and right hemispheres. (credit: modification of work by Bruce Blaus)

There is evidence of specialization of function—referred to as lateralization—in each hemisphere, mainly regarding differences in language functions. The left hemisphere controls the right half of the body, and the right hemisphere controls the left half of the body. Decades of research on lateralization of function by Michael Gazzaniga and his colleagues suggest that a variety of functions ranging from cause-and-effect reasoning to self-recognition may follow patterns that suggest some degree of hemispheric dominance (Gazzaniga, 2005). For example, the left hemisphere has been shown to be superior for forming associations in memory, selective attention, and positive emotions. The right hemisphere, on the other hand, has been shown to be superior in pitch perception, arousal, and negative emotions (Ehret, 2006). However, it should be pointed out that research on which hemisphere is dominant in a variety of different behaviors has produced inconsistent results, and therefore, it is probably better to think of how the two hemispheres interact to produce a given behavior rather than attributing certain behaviors to one hemisphere versus the other (Banich & Heller, 1998).

The two hemispheres are connected by a thick band of neural fibers known as the corpus callosum, consisting of about 200 million axons. The corpus callosum allows the two hemispheres to communicate with each other and allows for information being processed on one side of the brain to be shared with the other side.

Normally, we are not aware of the different roles that our two hemispheres play in day-to-day functions, but there are people who come to know the capabilities and functions of their two hemispheres quite well. In some cases of severe epilepsy, doctors elect to sever the corpus callosum as a means of controlling the spread of seizures (Figure 2). While this is an effective treatment option, it results in individuals who have “split brains”. After surgery, these split-brain patients show a variety of interesting behaviors. For instance, a split-brain patient is unable to name a picture that is shown in the patient’s left visual field because the information is only available in the largely nonverbal right hemisphere. However, they are able to recreate the picture with their left hand, which is also controlled by the right hemisphere. When the more verbal left hemisphere sees the picture that the hand drew, the patient is able to name it (assuming the left hemisphere can interpret what was drawn by the left hand).

Illustrations (a) and (b) show the corpus callosum’s location in the brain in front and side views. The corpus callosum sits in between the right and left hemisphere of the brain and slightly more towards the front of the brain than the back. Photograph (c) shows the corpus callosum in a dissected brain.

Figure 2. (a, b) The corpus callosum connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain. (c) A scientist spreads this dissected sheep brain apart to show the corpus callosum between the hemispheres. (credit c: modification of work by Aaron Bornstein)

Much of what we know about the functions of different areas of the brain comes from studying changes in the behavior and ability of individuals who have suffered damage to the brain. For example, researchers study the behavioral changes caused by strokes to learn about the functions of specific brain areas. A stroke, caused by an interruption of blood flow to a region in the brain, causes a loss of brain function in the affected region. The damage can be in a small area, and, if it is, this gives researchers the opportunity to link any resulting behavioral changes to a specific area. The types of deficits displayed after a stroke will be largely dependent on where in the brain the damage occurred.

Consider Theona, an intelligent, self-sufficient woman, who is 62 years old. Recently, she suffered a stroke in the front portion of her right hemisphere. As a result, she has great difficulty moving her left leg. (As you learned earlier, the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body; also, the brain’s main motor centers are located at the front of the head, in the frontal lobe.) Theona has also experienced behavioral changes. For example, while in the produce section of the grocery store, she sometimes eats grapes, strawberries, and apples directly from their bins before paying for them. This behavior—which would have been very embarrassing to her before the stroke—is consistent with damage in another region in the frontal lobe—the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with judgment, reasoning, and impulse control.

Watch It

Watch this video to see an incredible example of the challenges facing a split-brain patient shortly following the surgery to sever her corpus callosum.

You can view the transcript for “Split Brain mpeg1video” here (opens in new window).

Watch this second video about another patient who underwent a dramatic surgery to prevent her seizures. You’ll learn more about the brain’s ability to change, adapt, and reorganize itself, also known as brain plasticity.

You can view the transcript for “Brain Plasticity – the story of Jody” here (opens in new window).

Try It

Glossary

corpus callosum: thick band of neural fibers connecting the brain’s two hemispheres
gyrus (plural: gyri): bump or ridge on the cerebral cortex
hemisphere: left or right half of the brain
lateralization: concept that each hemisphere of the brain is associated with specialized functions
longitudinal fissure: deep groove in the brain’s cortex
sulcus (plural: sulci) depressions or grooves in the cerebral cortex

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