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March 26, 2013 / Mark Kerrigan

The Brainstem and Its (Dys)Function


Courtesy of Centre for Neuro Skills

The name tells it all–the Brainstem is at the base of the brain and actually looks like the stem. It connects the brain to the spinal cord, all information from the body goes through the Brainstem. But just because of its location, don’t think that it’s any less important than the other lobes of the brain.

The main functions of the brainstem relate to the automatic nervous system, like basic attention, arousal and consciousness. Additionally, the brainstem controls basic bodily functions like breathing, heart rate, swallowing, as well as reflexes to external stimuli (Startle Response). The brainstem also controls things that we never think about until there’s a problem with them–like sweating, blood pressure, digestion or temperature.

In addition to all these things, levels of alertness and the ability to sleep, as well as the sense of balance are controlled by the brainstem. Other symptoms of a damaged brainstem are dizziness, nausea and sleeping difficulties, such as insomnia or sleep apnea, which is stopping breathing while asleep.

Now I’m not saying that just because you have vertigo or sleep apnea you have had damage to your brainstem, but if you have damage, you probably present these issues.

Over the years of rehabilitation I’ve had, I’ve know quite a few folks who had damage to their brainstems. I didn’t realize what was causing them not to be able to speak normally or swallow a cup of coffee like everyone else, just that the staff had to put something which served as a thickener into whatever beverage my friend was going to drink. I didn’t really think twice about how he talked; just that his cadence or pace was a bit slower than most other people’s. The message was still the same–often more pleasant–but it took a bit longer for him to relay it than someone else who didn’t have injury to the brainstem.

Just because the brainstem is far away from the extremely vulnerable areas like the frontal and the temporal lobes, it is located near bony protrusions which can cause it damage when there is trauma.

As always, keep getting better, and I’ll talk to you soon!


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