What is the brainstem?
The brainstem is the stalklike part of your brain that connects your brain to your spinal cord (column of nerve tissue that runs down your spine). It sits toward the bottom of your brain and is part of your central nervous system.
Your brainstem helps regulate some body functions, including your breathing and heart rate. The brainstem also controls your balance, coordination and reflexes.
What does the brainstem do?
Your brainstem sends messages between your brain and other parts of your body. Your brainstem helps coordinate the messages that regulate:
Your brainstem also contains 10 of the 12 cranial nerves (nerves that start in your brain). These nerves control your facial movements, sensations and taste.
How does your brainstem perform with your brain?
Your brain has three parts that work together. Each part does specific jobs to help you process information, move and function.
Your brainstem is one of these three parts. It regulates many of the body functions that feel “automatic,” like breathing or swallowing.
What are the parts of the brainstem?
Your brainstem consists of three parts:
- Midbrain: The top part of the brainstem is crucial for regulating eye movements.
- Pons: The middle portion of the brainstem coordinates facial movements, hearing and balance.
- Medulla oblongata: The bottom part of the brainstem helps regulate your breathing, heart rhythms, blood pressure and swallowing.
Your brainstem also contains your reticular activating system (RAS). The RAS is a network of neurons (cells that carry electrical signals and chemicals through your brain). Your RAS controls your sleep and wake cycles. It also helps you stay alert and attentive to your surroundings.
Where is the brainstem located?
Your brainstem is near the bottom of your brain, at the back of your skull. It looks like a flower stalk or stem. It connects your brain to your spinal cord.
Conditions and Disorders
What conditions and disorders affect your brainstem?
A wide range of injuries or conditions can damage your brainstem. Some of these include:
- Blood clots: When a clump of blood forms where it shouldn’t, sometimes blocking blood flow.
- Brain tumors: A mass of irregular cells in the brain.
- Encephalitis: Inflammation in your brain tissue.
- Heart attack (myocardial infarction): A sudden blockage in one or more of your coronary arteries that stops blood flow to the heart.
- Stroke: Interruption of the blood supply in your brain.
- Sudden cardiac death: An abrupt loss of your heart function.
- Traumatic brain injury (TBI): A sudden injury, often from a severe jolt or blow to the head, that affects your brain functions.
What are the common signs or symptoms of brain conditions?
Because so many situations can affect your brainstem, signs and symptoms can vary significantly. In general, signs or symptoms of a brainstem injury or condition can include:
- Balance problems or dizziness.
- Inability to gag or cough.
- Insomnia or other disruptions to your usual sleep patterns.
- Nausea or vomiting.
- Slurred speech.
- Stroke symptoms.
- Sudden difficulty swallowing, drinking or eating.
What is brainstem death?
Brainstem death means a person has no brainstem functions. It occurs when something permanently damages the brainstem or cuts off the brain’s blood or oxygen supply.
Because the brainstem controls essential life functions, someone who experiences brainstem death cannot regain consciousness. They need artificial life support to remain alive. This condition is sometimes also called brain death.
Can you recover from a brainstem injury?
A brainstem injury can have severe effects because the brainstem controls so many of your body’s most basic functions. But people do recover from some types of brainstem injuries.
It’s important to get care right away if you suspect a brainstem injury. The sooner you get care, the more likely your healthcare providers can reduce the damage. You may need rehabilitation and other special care after a brainstem injury.
How can I keep my brainstem healthy?
Some lifestyle changes can keep your entire brain healthier. To keep your mind sharp and support your brain health, you may:
- Drink alcohol only in moderation.
- Eat a diet full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and lean protein.
- Exercise regularly.
- Practice puzzles, such as crosswords, jigsaw puzzles or word searches.
- Sleep at least seven to eight hours nightly.
- Quit smoking.
A strong social network has also been linked with brain health. Healthy relationships can help lower your blood pressure, decrease stress and increase your life span.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Your brainstem is the bottom part of your brain. It looks like a stalk that connects the rest of your brain to your spinal cord. Your brainstem sends signals from your brain to the rest of your body. It controls many subconscious body functions, like breathing and maintaining your heart rate. Brain tumors, strokes or traumatic brain injuries may damage your brainstem. You can lower your risk of these conditions by adopting healthy habits like exercising and eating a nutritious diet.
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