Functional Centers and Networks

In addition to being clustered into discrete nuclei with specific modalities, the neuron populations of the pons and medulla oblongata constitute interconnected networks that integrate somatic and autonomic sensory and motor functions. Many of these networks subserve reflex pathways that link the afferent inputs from certain cranial nerves with the motor output of others via interposed populations of interneurons within the reticular formation and specific relay nuclei. The complex coordination of the mouth, tongue, pharynx, and upper alimentary canal during the eating of a meal exemplifies the substantial degree of integration of different cranial nerve nuclei. The control of eye movements, the regulation of cardiovascular function, and a variety of autonomic reflexes, such as hiccuping, sneezing, and vomiting, are all examples of the interplay of different cranial nerve nuclei. The networks of interneurons that mediate these reflexes are not fully characterized, but some of them have been localized to specific sites within the reticular formation. Thus, in addition to functioning to some extent as a distributed integrative network, the reticular formation exhibits a substantial degree of functional compartmentalization.

Indeed, many of the regulatory functions exerted by the pons and medulla oblongata on other regions of the brain arise from specific, localized centers within the reticular formation. These include the regulation of pain impulses, the initiation of locomotion, and the control of cardiovascular function and respiration.

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