The Cerebellum

  1. Importance of the Cerebellum

    The cerebellum is involved in a feedback loop for muscle movement. When the cortex sends a message for motor movement to the lower motor neurons in the brain stem and spinal cord, it also sends a copy of this message to the cerebellum. This is conveyed from pyramidal fibers in the cortex on the corticopontinecerebeller tract to the cerebellum. In addition, information gets to the cerebellum from muscle spindles, joints and tendons. This information (proprioception and kinesthesia) lets the cerebellum know about the movements that have been executed, so that it can determine how well motor commands coming from the cortex are being carried out.

    The cerebellum plays a major role in the coordination of muscle activity for the production of smooth movement through its connections with the pyramidal and extrapyramidal systems and the descending reticular formation. Due to its role in the coordination of fine motor movements, the cerebellum makes important contributions to the control of rapid, alternating muscle movements necessary for speech and swallowing.

  2. The Cerebellar Peduncles

    Three fiber bundles called peduncles connect the cerebellum to the brain stem. On these tracts, information runs in both directions, with all messages sent and received by the cerebellum traveling on these fibers. According to Bhatnager and Andy, 1995, efferent fibers leave the cerebellum on the superior cerebellar peduncle. Afferent fibers use the middle and inferior peduncles to mediate almost all sensorimotor information going to the cerebellum.

    The superior cerebellar peduncle or the brachium conjuctivum connects the cerebellum to the midbrain and contains efferent fibers from the dentate, emboliform, and globose nuclei. These are the axons that send feedback to the motor cortex in the frontal lobe via the red nucleus in the midbrain and thalamus. Afferent fibers traveling in this peduncle bring proprioceptive information to the cerebellum from the lower body. This information ascends along the spinal cord in the ventrospinocerebellar tract, before entering the cerebellum.

    The middle cerebellar peduncle or the brachium pontis is the largest of the peduncles and links the cerebellum with the pons. Via this connection, the cerebellum receives a copy of the information for muscle movement that the pyramidal tract is carrying down to lower motor neurons.

    The inferior cerebellar peduncle or the restiform bodies connects the cerebellum with the vestibular nuclei located in the lower pons and medulla and also with the reticular formation.

    Proprioceptive information from the upper body, travelling along the dorsospinocerebellar tract enters the cerebellum on the inferior cerebellar peduncle.

  3. Feedback Pathways

    Sensory and motor input to the cerebellum:
    The cerebellum receives both proprioceptive and kinesthetic information from the periphery. It also gets information about the strength and type of muscle movements occurring.

    Proprioception, according to Love and Webb, 1992, refers to sensory information about pressure, movement, vibration, position, muscle pain, and equilibrium received from muscles, joints and tendons.

    Kinesthesia is a more specific term than proprioception. It refers to feedback that comes only from muscle spindles. Kinesthesia is the "ability to detect the range and direction of movements of the limbs" (Bhatnager & Andy, 1995, pg. 341).

    Sensory information ascends to the cerebellum along the spinal cord. The two main tracts that bring information from the periphery to the cerebellum are the ventrospinocerebellar tract and the dorsospinocerebellar tract.

    The ventrospinocerebellar tract contains proprioceptive fibers from the lower body. The axons of this tract deccussate and travel upward on the contralateral side of the spinal cord for some distance before crossing again and continuing upward ipsilaterally. They enter the cerebellum on the superior cerebellar peduncle.

    The dorsospinocerebellar tract bring proprioception to the cerebellum to let it know about changes in strength, range, and tension of muscle movements (Bhatnager and Andy, 1995).

    The reticulocerebellar tract carries messages received by the reticular nuclei in various parts of the brain stem from the cortex, spinal cord, vestibular system and red nucleus.

    The vestibulocerebellar tract brings information from the semi-circular canals of the inner ear to the cerebellum via the vestibular nucleus located in the lower pons and medulla. These fibers travel to the flocculi on the inferior cerebellar peduncle.

  4. Cortical Input

    The corticopontinecerebellar tract brings motor information to the cerebellum from the frontal lobe. It leaves the precentral gyrus and descends in the internal capsule along with pyramidal tract fibers. Its axons synapse with cells in the pons. These pontine nuclei then send second order neurons to the cerebellum on the middle cerebellar peduncle. The axons of the corticopontine tract bring the cerebellum a copy of the information that the corticobulbar and corticospinal aspects of the pyramidal tract are conveying to the cranial and spinal nerves. Thus, the cerebellum "knows" the details of the messages being sent to lower motor neurons by the upper motor neurons of the pyramidal tract. The messages sent by the corticopontinecerebellar tract includes information about the nature of the motor impulse being sent by the precentral gyrus, its destination, its strength and its speed. This connection is contralateral, meaning that information from the frontal lobe of one hemisphere is sent to the posterior lobe on the opposite side of the brain.

    The cerebellum acts on the motor messages carried by the corticopontinecerebellar tract. In an unknown fashion, it integrates the information and exterts control over the message through the firing of Purkinje cells.

    The corticopontinecerebellar tract is considered by many to be part of the extrapyramidal system because, although it originates in the precentral and postcentral gyrus with pyramidal tract fibers, it synapses with cells in the pons rather than with spinal or cranial nerves. The portion of the tract from the cortex to the pons consist of first order neurons; and from the pons to the cerebellum, second order. The first order neurons may be considered by some to be part of the pyramidal system.

  5. Output from the cerebellum

    The tracts discussed below may be considered part of the extrapyramidal system since they carry involuntary, autonomic information and are indirect and multisynaptic. As mentioned previously some sources consider the extrapyramidal tract to consist of the basal ganglia only.

    Output to the red nucleus

    The dentate nuclei, which receive inhibitory messages from the Purkinje cells in the lateral cerebellar cortex, and the emboliform and globose nuclei, which are controlled by the Purkinje cells in the intermediate cortical areas all project to the contralateral red nucleus in the midbrain via the superior cerebellar peduncle.

    Some of the information sent on the superior cerebellar peduncle travels from the red nucleus to the ventrolateral nucleus of the thalamus. From there it passes on to the precentral gyrus of the frontal lobe. Other ascending projections travel to the thalamus directly. These connections allow the cerebellum to provide feedback to the motor cortex regarding the messages that it has received from corticopontinecerebellar fibers.

  6. The Structure of the Feedback Loop for Motor Movement

    1. Precentral gyrus --> 2. Pontine nuclei -- > 3. Cerebellum 4. Dentate, globose, and emboliform nuclei -->5. Red nuclei --> 6. Thalamus --> 7. Precentral gyrus

  7. Don't forget, proprioceptive information is also going to the cerebellum from muscles, joints and tendons.

    Fibers from the red nucleus also descend to synapse with the spinal nerves, forming the rubrospinal tract.

    The vestibulospinal tract

    The fastigal nucleus, which receives inhibitory control from the Purkinje cells of the vermis, sends messages to the vestibular nuclei in the lower pons and medulla. From the vestibular nuclei, information is sent to lower motor neurons in the brain stem and spinal cord. This tract brings information about the body's position in space to the antigravity muscles.

    The reticulospinal tract

    This tract carries information related to the functioning of the autonomic nervous system including circulation of the blood, dilation of blood vessels, respiration and visceral activity. (Note that while this tract influences autonomic activity, it is not part of the autonomic nervous system.)

    Ataxia, which is an incoordination of motor movement, results from cerebellar lesions. The term ataxia is also used to describe the unsteady walk and usual postures seen in patients who have suffered injury to the cerebellum. People sometimes compensate for these problems by walking with their feet far apart in a broad-based gait (Love & Webb,1992).


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