Small But Vital: What Is The Medulla Oblongata?


The medulla oblongata is the lowest part of the brain stem, one of the four main regions of the brain. This cone-shaped structure connects your brain to the spinal cord. It controls the function of your autonomous nervous system, and directs brain signals to their correct location.

Although it is just 1.2 inches long, the medulla is without a doubt the most important part of the brain.

In this article, we will highlight some of the main functions of the medulla oblongata, talk about the role it plays in the brain, and explain what would happen if your medulla got damaged.

What Is The Medulla Oblongata Definition?

Medical dictionaries define medulla oblongata as a wide, stalk-like part of the vertebrate brain that connects to the spinal cord. It contains the nerve centers that are in control of involuntary vital functions.

The term medulla oblongata was first used in the late 17th century. However, the actual region of the brain that the term refers to was first discovered in the early 19th century by César Julien Jean Legallois, a French doctor and physiologist who was one of the early practitioners of experimental psychology.

While examining the rabbit brain, Legallois removed the cerebrum and the cerebellum, only to discover that the rabbits could still breathe. However, the breathing ceased as soon as he removed the cone-shaped part at the bottom of the brain, which has since been known as the medulla oblongata.


What Is The Main Function Of The Medulla Oblongata?

In addition to being the “breathing center” of the brain, as Legallois dubbed it more than 200 years ago, the medulla has many other vital functions. Perhaps most important is the cardiovascular function.

This part of the brain stem is home to your body’s cardiovascular center.

Your cardiovascular center is in control of your blood pressure, heart rate, blood acidity, and all other functions related to your heart. When the sensors in the medulla detect any alarming change in these functions, they will instruct your heart to beat faster or slower to restore optimal function.

The medulla also houses many nerves that are in charge of head and shoulder movement, digestion, and speech. It plays a part in body movement coordination and mood control. What’s more, the medulla oblongata is also responsible for certain reflex actions like sneezing, coughing, and swallowing.

What Does The Medulla In The Brain Do?

Because it sits at the very bottom of the brain stem, the medulla connects your brain to the spinal cord, as well as the rest of your body. This means that all impulses that are traveling either to or from the brain must first travel through the medulla before they reach their destination.

The medulla is also in charge of relaying the information obtained from your senses to the cerebrum, where it is processed and organized. Finally, this vital part of the brain serves as a bridge between the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system.


What Will Happen If The Medulla Oblongata Is Damaged?

Whenever they’re performing brain surgery, doctors are extremely careful not to damage or otherwise injure the medulla oblongata. While injuries to most other parts of the brain – including the cerebellum and the cerebrum – can often be reversed, that’s rarely the case with the medulla.

In fact, damage to the medulla can leave a series of long-term effects on the brain, as well as your whole body. These effects can range from mild (e.g. difficulty swallowing, numbness, or acid reflux) to severe (e.g. partial or total paralysis or impaired movement control.)

Some injuries to the medulla oblongata can also be fatal.

Why Does Damage To The Medulla Oblongata Cause Death?

As we have already explained, the medulla oblongata is in charge of the vital functions of the autonomic nervous system. These include breathing, blood circulation, and heart rate.

If certain regions of the medulla that are responsible for those functions got damaged, it would likely cut the supply of blood or air to your brain, your heart, and other parts of your body, resulting in immediate death.

The Final Word

We need to understand how our minds work so we can work our minds better.
—Jim Kwik, Author of Mindvalley’s Superbrain Program

Despite its small size, the medulla oblongata is an extremely important part of the brain. It performs numerous vital functions in your body and perfectly illustrates just how complex your brain really is.

The human brain is one of the most fascinating structures in the universe. It has an endless capacity to grow, develop, and adapt – both physically and mentally. However, we all still have a lot to learn about our brains to be able to use them to their maximum potential.

What is the most fascinating thing you’ve heard about the human brain? Share it in the comments below.



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