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What Is the Function of the Medulla?

By S. Berger
Updated Feb 13, 2024
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The medulla oblongata, a structure comprising the lower section of the brain stem, is responsible for a number of tasks essential to human life. There is no single function of the medulla, but most of the processes it controls are related to one another. These involuntary functions include the regulation of heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion. Sleep and arousal, some motor control, and sensory relay to the cortex are all other significant duties of this structure. The exact role of some parts of the medulla have not yet been identified, and as research continues, more functions could be revealed.

The medulla is influenced by several types of unique receptors throughout the body that react to environmental changes. Chemoreceptors in the lungs send information back to the medulla, signalling when a different rate of respiration is needed. Baroreceptors in the blood vessels monitor blood pressure, and sends this information to the nucleus tractus solitarius in the medulla. This structure then can send signals via the autonomic nervous system to effect changes in heart rate and vascular resistance.

Another important function of the medulla is to regulate reflex actions involving the face and throat. This allows such actions to be performed without time consuming cognitive processing. Certain stimuli cause the medulla to send signals through the cranial nerves to execute actions like sneezing, swallowing, or coughing. While not always a reflex, the neurons that initiate vomiting are also found here. If these actions had to be initiated in higher cortical areas, there is the chance they could not be performed in time to be helpful.

The inferior olivary nucleus located in this region shares connections with the cerebellum, and is involved in physical movement. Although this function of the medulla is not to initiate movements, it helps with their control and refinement. This area also helps to ensure the coordination of movements with cognition and sensory processes. This task may be accomplished by the nucleus encoding the timing of the arrival of sensory information.

Several nuclei exist in the medulla that receive sensory information from the nerves of the peripheral nervous system. These reveal another important function of the medulla, which is to relay sensations of touch, pain, balance, and limb position to the cortex. The gracile nucleus and fasciculus are the largest nuclei that accomplish these activities, and damage to them can result in a loss of sensation.

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Discussion Comments
By matthewc23 — On Nov 01, 2011

@Emilski - I do not know anything about the medulla or medulla oblongata, except what is written in this article, but I can say that this is a very popularly known part of the brain for a strange reason.

I remember first hearing of the medulla oblongata when watching the Adam Sandler movie "The Waterboy." In the movie the professor states that anger and aggression in alligators comes from the medulla oblongata, but I never knew how true this was or if it was true at all. I feel like it could have some validity to it, but it is also a very funny sounding name the people who made the movie might have picked for this scene.

Anyway, whenever I hear this part of the brain mentioned I hear this exact same explanation to its function and it most definitely came from the person watching this scene of the movie.

Also even if it were true and the movie were one hundred percent accurate in the movie it stated that it functioned that way in alligators and not humans, they could have completely different functions depending on the organism and even the species.

By Emilski — On Oct 31, 2011

@cardsfan27 - I know that Freud had the belief that many parts of the brain controlled specific functions of the body and this may be where you have heard of this.

However, most of these beliefs has been completely dis-proven by modern science and there are only a few aspects of the brain that decide what type of personality a person will have or what actions they will take.

The medulla oblongata is something that has a specific function along with the medulla that controls many physical aspects of the human body and allows for the body to function as a whole. As far as personality an cognitive aspects go concerning the medulla or medulla oblongata I think you may need to look up some modern science related textbooks to see what function it has concerning this aspect of the brain.

By cardsfan27 — On Oct 30, 2011

I have always heard that the medulla oblongata function was that it controlled the part of the brain that determined anger and aggression.

I guess this could simply be an old Sigmund Freud type of belief but I have heard that this part of the body, on top of controlling various other functions of the body, was where someone gets their anger and aggression in their personality, but then again I do not know if this is an out dated ideology or if it has some validity to it.

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