Brain limbic system diagram

Amygdala diagram 8 best images

Dr. C. George Boeree

Emotion involves the entire nervous system, of course. But there are two parts of the nervous system that are especially significant: The limbic system and the autonomic nervous system.

The limbic system is a complex set of structures that lies on both sides of the thalamus, just under the cerebrum. It includes the hypothalamus, the hippocampus, the amygdala, and several other nearby areas. It appears to be primarily responsible for our emotional life, and has a lot to do with the formation of memories. In this drawing, you are looking at the brain cut in half, but with the brain stem intact. The part of the limbic system shown is that which is along the left side of the thalamus (hippocampus and amygdala) and just under the front of the thalamus (hypothalamus):


The hypothalamus is a small part of the brain located just below the thalamus on both sides of the third ventricle. (The ventricles are areas within the cerebrum that are filled with cerebrospinal fluid, and connect to the fluid in the spine.) It sits just inside the two tracts of the optic nerve, and just above (and intimately connected with) the pituitary gland.

The hypothalamus is one of the busiest parts of the brain, and is mainly concerned with homeostasis. Homeostasis is the process of returning something to some “set point.” It works like a thermostat: When your room gets too cold, the thermostat conveys that information to the furnace and turns it on. As your room warms up and the temperature gets beyond a certain point, it sends a signal that tells the furnace to turn off.

The hypothalamus is responsible for regulating your hunger, thirst, response to pain, levels of pleasure, sexual satisfaction, anger and aggressive behavior, and more. It also regulates the functioning of the autonomic nervous system (see below), which in turn means it regulates things like pulse, blood pressure, breathing, and arousal in response to emotional circumstances.

The hypothalamus receives inputs from a number of sources. From the vagus nerve, it gets information about blood pressure and the distension of the gut (that is, how full your stomach is). From the reticular formation in the brainstem, it gets information about skin temperature. From the optic nerve, it gets information about light and darkness. From unusual neurons lining the ventricles, it gets information about the contents of the cerebrospinal fluid, including toxins that lead to vomiting. And from the other parts of the limbic system and the olfactory (smell) nerves, it gets information that helps regulate eating and sexuality. The hypothalamus also has some receptors of its own, that provide information about ion balance and temperature of the blood.

In one of the more recent discoveries, it seems that there is a protein called leptin which is released by fat cells when we overeat. The hypothalamus apparently senses the levels of leptin in the bloodstream and responds by decreasing appetite. It would seem that some people have a mutation in a gene which produces leptin, and their bodies can’t tell the hypothalamus that they have had enough to eat. However, many overweight people do not have this mutation, so there is still a lot of research to do!

The hypothalamus sends instructions to the rest of the body in two ways. The first is to the autonomic nervous system. This allows the hypothalamus to have ultimate control of things like blood pressure, heartrate, breathing, digestion, sweating, and all the sympathetic and parasympathetic functions.

The other way the hypothalamus controls things is via the pituitary gland. It is neurally and chemically connected to the pituitary, which in turn pumps hormones called releasing factors into the bloodstream. As you know, the pituitary is the so-called “master gland, ” and these hormones are vitally important in regulating growth and metabolism.

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