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Medulla Oblongata

The brain is a master organ for control and communication within the body and also with the surroundings. Amongst all, the human brain is the most complex and highly developed of all the brains. Larger and more complicated animals have a greater need for an organ to control activities of the body. Hence, more highly developed animals have more highly evolved brains.

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Table of Contents

Basic features of a Brain

In spite of their great differences, all brains have some common features:

  • All brains are composed of neurons or nerve cells
  • All brains possess at least three major sections: a sensory section, an integrating section and a motor section

The overall function of the brain, which is deemed as behaviour, is determined by two factors – the precise way in which these three divisions are connected and the presence of other special brain centres.

What is Medulla Oblongata? – Definition

The brain majorly can be classified into the forebrain, midbrain and the hindbrain. This lower part of the brain, hindbrain, further can be distinguished into the Cerebellum, Medulla Oblongata and Pons Varolii.

The word Medulla Oblongata has its origins from Latin, where “medis” corresponds to middle and “oblongata” corresponds to long. Hence, the medulla is a long-stem like structure, piriform, conic resembling. It is found in the lowest region of the brain chiefly regulating the autonomic functions such as breathing, heartbeat and digestion. It is critically important as it connects the spinal cord, pons and the cerebral cortex. Additionally, it assists to maintain body posture and governs our reflexes.

In view of importance in controlling head and facial musculature, the medulla oblongata is regarded as the “spinal cord of the head”.

Medulla Oblongata – Highlights

  • The medulla oblongata develops from the myelencephalon
  • It is the most caudal brainstem structure situated in the posterior-most part of the brainstem merging with the spinal cord
  • Dimensions – at its largest, the medulla is 3 cm long and 2 cm wide with a thickness of 1.25 cm
  • It is home to all descending and ascending tracts carrying signals between the spinal cord and the brain
  • Its broad portions unite the overlying pons hence the narrow section continues with the spinal cord
  • The intersection between the spinal cord and medulla concurs with the upper border of the first cervical vertebra (Atlas)
  • In addition to the other sections of the hindbrain, the medulla spaces out in the infratentorial space
  • The medulla regulates a number of autonomic functions
  • Commissural fibres define the base of the medulla. It crosses over from the ipsilateral side in the spinal cord to the contralateral side in the brainstem, underlying which is the spinal cord
  • It can be segregated into –
  • An upper posterior section connected to the lower part of the 4th ventricle – it is the “open part of the medulla”
  • Lower section with the central canal – it is the “closed part of the medulla”

Also see: Body fluids and circulation

Medulla Oblongata – Location

It is located anterior to the cerebellum in the brain stem, inferior to the pons. It is the lowest section of the hindbrain. It is situated in the anterior section of the posterior cranial fossa, stretching down to the foramen magnum

Posteriorly – vallecula of the cerebellum

Anteriorly – meninges and clivus

The topmost part of the medulla goes on to form the fourth cerebral ventricle. This ventricle is a cavity holding the cerebrospinal fluid and continues with the cerebral aqueduct.

Medulla Oblongata Anatomy – Structure

The medulla oblongata is a portion of the brainstem linking the spinal cord and the pons. It extends through the foramen magnum to the levels of the atlas. It is embraced dorsally above the foramen magnum by the cerebral hemispheres.
Medulla extends from the pronto-medullary junction until the plane below the foramen magnum for close to 0.5 cm. The medulla spinalis has a central canal that extends into its lower half to open in the four ventricles at its upper half. The cerebrospinal fluid surrounds the medulla from the inside (central canal) and outside (subarachnoid space). The medulla is situated between the two lobes of the cerebellum (anterior cerebellar notch).

Key components of the Medulla oblongata – Anatomy of Medulla Oblongata 

Medulla is divided into two major parts –

  • Ventral medulla – the front portion
  • Dorsal medulla – rear portion. It is also known as the tegmentum


1. Median fissures

Along the posterior and anterior portions of the medulla, shallow grooves are found, these are the median fissures.

2. Pyramids

The upper part of the medulla ventrally, is deeply grooved in the midline along with a bold complexity on either side, these are the pyramids. It is as a result of the contained cortico-spinal fibres. Some of the fibres overlap each other hence obliterating the anterior median fissure, which is known as the decussation of the pyramids. The external arcuate fibers originate from the anterior medial fissures above the decussation of the pyramids, running lateral across the surface of the pons

They are the two round masses of white matter situated on the facing sides of the anterior median fissure.

3. Olivary bodies

In the upper part of the medulla, the area between the posterolateral and anterolateral sulcus is distinguished by a swelling, a pair of oval structures known as the olivary bodies or olives. It contains nerve fibres linking the cerebellum and pons with the medulla. The swelling is as a result of the large mass of gray matter, the inferior olivary nucleus.

4. Fasciculus gracilis

The rear end of the medulla between the posterolateral sulcus and posterior median comprises tracts entering from the posterior funiculus of the spinal cord. These structures are the Fasciculus gracilis situated intermediate to the midline and laterally to the fasciculus cuneatus. These structures typically are the continuation of the bundle of nerve fiber tracts extending from the spinal cord to the medulla.

The terminal end of the fasciculi possesses round elevations referred to as the gracile and cuneate tubercles. These are as a result of the nucleus cuneatus and nucleus gracilis. Overlying the tubercles, a triangular fossa occupies the posterior aspect of the medulla forming the floor of the 4th ventricle. This fossa, on either side, is enclosed by the inferior cerebellar peduncle.

Right laterally immediate to this fasciculus cuneatus is the tuberculum cinereum, which is yet another longitudinal elevation caused as a result of the spinal nucleus of the trigeminal nerve.

Also Check : NEET Biology Mcq On Human Brain

Parts of Medulla oblongata

The medulla is found between the spinal cord and the pons. Its ventral and dorsal surfaces of the medulla are distinguished by distinct fissures and protuberances constituted by different nuclei and related tracts.

Ventral surface 

The anterior median fissure is along the midline of the ventral surface of the medulla. The medullary pyramid is a vertical protuberance on either side of the fissure; it is formed by fibres of the corticospinal tract. The medial fissure under the base of the pyramids is intervened by the fascicles of the corticospinal tract. It lays a foundation for the pyramidal decussation in the midline.

Each section of the ventral medullary surface has two sulci – posterolateral sulcus and anterolateral sulcus. Olive is an oval structure present between the sulci, present posterior and lateral to each of the pyramids. 

Dorsal surface 

The dorsal surface of the medulla oblongata is distinguished in the midline by the dorsal medial sulcus which is in continuation with its spinal counterpart. 

There are two vertical prominences on either side of the dorsal median sulcus which are parallel to the sulcus; one is lateral to the sulcus formed by the gracile fasciculus ascending from the spinal cord; its cranial part comprises the gracile nucleus. It forms the gracile tubercle. There is another vertical prominence lateral to each of the gracile fasciculus formed by the cuneate fasciculus. It shows the cuneate tubercle too. 

The trigeminal tubercle is another prominence lateral to each of the cuneate nuclei formed by the spinal nucleus of the trigeminal nerve. The lateral funiculus of the medulla is present caudal to the trigeminal tubercle, in direct continuation with the lateral funiculus of the spinal cord. 

Medulla Oblongata Function

The medulla is critical in performing some important body functions pertaining to the regulation of mental, motor and sensory processing. It is responsible to regulate the autonomic functions of the body while it connects the higher levels of the brain to that of the spinal cord.

  • It relays nerve impulses between the spinal cord and the brain
  • Controls autonomic functions
  • Regulates mood
  • Coordinates movements of the body
  • It is the reflex centre for coughing, vomiting, sneezing, swallowing
  • It is the vasomotor center: baroreceptors
  • It is the cardiac centres: parasympathetic and sympathetic system

Primarily, the medulla is the control centre for respiratory and cardiovascular activities. It is responsible to regulate the blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate and other such life-sustaining activities. Additionally, it also regulates involuntary reflexes such as gagging, sneezing and swallowing. It coordinates the voluntary actions namely movement of the eye too.

Medulla houses many cranial nerve nuclei crucial for the head, speech, digestion of food and movement of the shoulder. It transmits sensory impulses between the peripheral and central nervous systems. The medulla also relays sensory information to the thalamus which finally reaches the cerebral cortex.

This was a brief on medulla oblongata, its anatomical features, meaning and functions. Visit us at BYJU’S for more content important for NEET preparation.

Pons and Medulla Oblongata

Located near the base of the skull, Pons is part of the brainstem, the lowermost structure in the brain. It is found just above the medulla oblongata connecting the spinal cord through the opening at the base of the skull. It is below the cerebellum and the cavity of the fourth ventricle. It is a mass of nerve fibres connecting the medulla with the cerebellum. Pons is a critical part of the autonomic nervous system. It functions as a pathway for nerve fibres which connect the cerebral cortex with that of the cerebellum. It relays information about sensation, motor function, eye movement, taste, hearing etc.

In addition to regulation of functions conducted by the cranial nerves which reside in it, the Pons functions in collaboration with the medulla oblongata to generate the respiratory rhythm of breathing. The stable regulation of activities of Pons is essential for the REM (Rapid eye movement) sleep.

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Frequently Asked Questions


What would happen if you damage your medulla?

Damaging your medulla can lead to fatal conditions such as loss of sensation, paralysis and also affects respiratory processes.


Define medulla.

The Medulla forms the lowest part of the brain and the lowest section of the brainstem. It plays a pivotal role in passing signals between the spinal cord and the brain’s higher areas and are also involved in regulating autonomic activities.


Is medulla oblongata used for thinking?

No, the medulla oblongata is not used for thinking. It regulates processes such as breathing, heartbeat and sneezing that do not require active thinking.


Can we survive without medulla oblongata?

The medulla oblongata is continuous with the spinal cord and is responsible for signal transmission between the brain and spinal cord such as respiration and heart rate. Therefore, it is not possible to survive without a medulla oblongata.


Where is the medulla oblongata located?

The medulla is located at the base of the brain where in the brain stem connects the brain to the spinal cord. It is connected to the midbrain by the pons and is posteriorly continuous with the spinal cord, with which it merges at the opening at the base of the skull.


Why is the medulla oblongata not covered by the blood brain barrier?

Area postrema is a paired structure that is present dorsally in the medulla oblongata. It has sensory neurons that detect poisonous or harmful chemicals in the blood and that is the reason why the medulla oblongata is not covered by a blood-brain barrier.


Brief about the external features of Medulla oblongata.

The medulla can be categorized into 2 parts – ventral medulla and dorsal medulla. The ventral medulla comprises a pair of triangular structures – pyramids which in turn house the pyramidal tracts. The upper part of the dorsal medulla constitutes the lower part of the fourth ventricle. This region is the point of origin for the last 7 cranial nerves. Most of these ventrally exit the medulla.


What is the function of medulla oblongata?

Medulla constitutes the lower part of the brainstem. It is involved in regulating vital functions such as heartbeat and breathing. It passes signals between spinal cord and the higher parts of the brain and regulates different functions of the autonomic system.

How are the medulla oblongata and brain stem related?

Brainstem connects the cerebrum to the cerebellum and the spinal cord. It comprises three sections – the pons, midbrain and the medulla oblongata.

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