What Are Climbing Fibers?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Climbing fibers are structures in the brain that connect the medulla oblongata with the cerebellum. They play an important role in motor movement and coordination. Development of the climbing fibers persists after birth and the structures are capable of regenerating in certain conditions. This can help maintain key functions in the wake of injury and is somewhat unique for the central nervous system, where not all structures are capable of rebuilding themselves.

Development of climbing fibers continues after birth.
Development of climbing fibers continues after birth.

These structures originate in the medulla oblongata, a part of the brainstem. They twine up into the cerebellum, creating a deeply branched structure that connects with individual cells known as Purkinje cells. Each climbing fiber is capable of splitting to come into contact with multiple cells. In early brain development, the Purkinje cells are supplied by multiple climbing fibers. In the days after birth, the fibers compete with each other, and one survivor is left to establish a connection, while the others fade away.

Within the brain, climbing fibers have an excitatory function. When the medulla oblongata receives signals from the rest of the brain and processes them, it can trigger the fibers, which activate the Purkinje cells in the cerebellum. This can cause a movement, as well as a learning response after a motor error. The structures play an important role in motor learning and the development of coordination and complex motor skills.

As part of the central nervous system, these cells are in indirect communication with a number of systems within the body. Input from the body reaches the brainstem through the spinal cord, providing feedback about the environment as well as responses occurring within the body. The brainstem, responsible for a number of simple functions, must route information to an appropriate part of the body in fractions of seconds. Any delay could cause an error or problem, as for example if someone doesn't move quickly away from a source of extreme heat or cold that could cause injury.

Research on the climbing fibers has successfully documented the way they develop in the brain, and demonstrated the competition involved in the development of a permanent connection between each fiber and its accompanying Purkinje cells. This research also shows how climbing fibers contribute to motor learning and development. Like many other components of the central nervous system, these structures full multiple needs to coordinate the complex functions of the body. They can transmit information from multiple sources to control cerebellar responses to internal and external stimuli.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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