The medulla oblongata is the brain section responsible for conscious thought and the regulation of involuntary action. It lies on the brain stem edge, in the front of the cerebellum.

This article will explain in detail where your medulla oblongata is located and break down its many functions.

Your brain only makes up about 2 percent of your body weight, but it uses more than 20 percent of your body’s total energy.

Besides being the site of conscious thought, your brain controls most of your body’s involuntary actions. It tells your glands when to release hormones, regulates your breathing, and tells your heart how fast to beat.

Your medulla oblongata plays a vital role in regulating those involuntary processes. Without this vital section of your brain, your body and brain wouldn’t be able to communicate with each other.

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Illustration by Antonio Jimenez

Your medulla oblongata looks like a rounded bulge at the end of your brain stem, or the part of your brain that connects with your spinal cord. It also lies in front of the part of your brain called the cerebellum.

Your cerebellum looks like a tiny brain joined onto the back of your brain. In fact, its name literally translates to “little brain” from Latin.

The hole in your skull that lets your spinal cord pass through is called your foramen magnum. Your medulla oblongata is located at about the same level or slightly above this hole.

The top of your medulla creates the floor of the fourth ventricle of your brain. Ventricles are cavities filled with cerebral spinal fluid that help provide your brain with nutrients.

Despite its small size, your medulla oblongata has many essential roles. It’s critical for relaying information between your spinal cord and brain. It also regulates your cardiovascular and respiratory systems. Four of your 12 cranial nerves originate on this region.

Your brain and spine communicate through columns of nerve fibers that run through your medulla called spinal tracts. These tracts can be ascending (sending information toward your brain) or descending (carrying information to your spinal cord).

Each of your spinal tracts carries a specific type of information. For example, your lateral spinothalamic tract carries information related to pain and temperature.

If part of your medulla becomes damaged, it can lead to an inability to relay a specific type of message between your body and brain. The types of information carried by these spinal tracts include:

  • pain and sensation
  • crude touch
  • fine touch
  • proprioception
  • perception of vibrations
  • perception of pressure
  • conscious control of muscles
  • balance
  • muscle tone
  • eye function

Your motor neurons cross from the left side of your brain to the right side of your spine in your medulla. If you damage the left side of your medulla, it will lead to loss of motor function on the right side of your body. Similarly, if the right side of the medulla is damaged, it will affect the left side of your body.

If your medulla is damaged, your brain and spinal cord won’t be able to effectively transmit information to one another.

Damage to your medulla oblongata can lead to:

Various types of problems can develop if your medulla becomes damaged because of a stroke, brain degeneration, or a sudden head injury. The symptoms that arise depend on the particular part of your medulla that’s been damaged.

Parkinson’s disease

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disease that affects your brain and nervous system. The major symptoms are:

  • tremors
  • slow movements
  • stiffness in limbs and torso
  • trouble balancing

The exact cause of Parkinson’s is still unknown, but many of the symptoms are due to the degradation of neurons that produce a neurotransmitter called dopamine.

It’s thought that brain degeneration starts at the medulla oblongata before spreading to other parts of the brain. People with Parkinson’s frequently have cardiovascular dysfunction, such as challenges regulating their heart rate and blood pressure.

A 2017 study, conducted on 52 people with Parkinson’s disease, established the first link between Parkinson’s and atypical characteristics of the medulla. The researchers used MRI technology to find atypical structural characteristics in parts of the medulla related to the cardiovascular problems people with Parkinson’s often experience.

Wallenberg syndrome

Wallenberg syndrome is also known as lateral medullary syndrome. It frequently results from a stroke near the medulla. Common symptoms of Wallenberg syndrome include:

  • swallowing difficulties
  • dizziness
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • balance problems
  • uncontrollable hiccups
  • loss of pain and temperature sensation in one half of your face
  • numbness on one side of your body

Dejerine syndrome

Dejerine syndrome, or medial medullary syndrome, is a rare condition that occurs in less than 1 percent of people who have strokes that affect the back portion of their brain. Symptoms include:

  • weakness of your arm and leg on the opposite side of the brain damage
  • tongue weakness on the same side of the brain damage
  • loss of sensation on the opposite side of the brain damage
  • paralysis of limbs on the opposite side of the brain damage

Bilateral medial medullary syndrome

Bilateral medial medullary syndrome is a rare complication from a stroke. Only a fraction of 1 percent of people with strokes in the rear part of their brain develop this condition. Symptoms include:

Reinhold syndrome

Reinhold syndrome, or hemimedullary syndrome, is extremely rare. There are only about 10 people in medical literature that have developed this condition. Symptoms include:

  • paralysis
  • sensory loss on one side
  • loss of muscle control on one side
  • Horner’s syndrome
  • sensation loss on one side of your face
  • nausea
  • difficulty speaking
  • vomiting

Your medulla oblongata is located at the base of your brain, where the brain stem connects the brain to your spinal cord. It plays an essential role in passing messages between your spinal cord and brain. It’s also essential for regulating your cardiovascular and respiratory systems.

If your medulla oblongata becomes damaged, it can lead to respiratory failure, paralysis, or loss of sensation.