The Nervous System Simplified, Part 1: The Brain Stem – Tiny Stalk, Big Picture

Apr 04, 2016

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If you’ve been to one of the weekly Tuesday night talks that we’ve given at our office, you have heard me talk about how the functional neurology approach to treating the nervous system is unlike anything else in chiropractic.  One of the reasons why it’s so unique stems from this chart:

 seven levels of a lesion


This chart breaks down your nervous system into seven different levels.  Functional neurology allows us to examine each of these levels individually and collectively, and gives us ideas as to how to best treat the areas that are working at less than ideal levels.  At our talks, I also mention that, while I would like to fix every area of dysfunction in every person’s nervous system, if I had to fix one thing first and foremost, I would focus my attention on the brain stem. In this and the next blog post, I will discuss the importance of this tiny little stalk of anatomy that has widespread implications on your health.

Why the brain stem?


If you just look at a picture of the central nervous system, you can see that the brain stem is where the cerebrum (what most of us think of when we think of the brain) connects to the spinal cord.  So if you were to just think of the brain stem as the link from the command center to everything below it, you could certainly understand why keeping the brain stem healthy is crucial to our overall health.  But the brain stem is so much more than just a relay station for executing the brain’s wishes.


The brain stem has three distinct parts – the midbrain (or mesencephalon), the pons, and the medulla oblongata (yes, Waterboy fans, that medulla oblongata).  The mesencephalon is involved in more functions than could be listed in one article.  But some of the important roles that the it plays in our functioning include areas that collect auditory information, generate the visual signals that allow you to read, control eye movement, and perhaps most interestingly to chiropractic patients, begin the pain inhibition process.  In addition to all of this, the mesencephalon has a direct excitatory influence on your autonomic nervous system – the system that controls heart rate, heartbeat rhythm, breathing, digestion, and perspiration.   So it becomes clear that keeping the mesencephalon healthy and working properly is crucial to the body’s health.


So the question then becomes, what can affect the mesencephalon?  The short answer is, everything!


The mesencephalon sits in a very precarious position – it has the responsibility of taking in all of the input from the outside of the body, from all five of our senses, and sending that information towards the brain.  As a result, it has to have a very high threshold of input that it can withstand.  But in our busy lives, where we are exposed to bright lights all day, drink too much caffeine, sleep too little, and simply do not get enough restorative relaxation, the amount of stimulus becomes too much to handle.  Our internal stress management systems get overloaded, and what may usually be a mild stimulus that does not elicit a major reaction from us, all of a sudden, can send us over the edge!  Can you recall an incident where the slightest moment of agitation sent you off the deep end, only for you to look back a few hours later, once you’ve relaxed, and say, “Why did that set me off?”


That’s how the mesencephalon works.  It’s a phenomenon known as mesencephalic wind-up.  What you need to take away from this whole discussion is that, within your nervous system, the mesencephalon is perhaps the area that is most sensitive to stress and chronic inflammation.


That’s the bad news.  The good news is, we can attack this from both ends.  First, we can work with you on methods to lower your stress and inflammation levels.  This can be as simple as deep breathing, guided meditation, appropriate amounts of exercise, or simple changes to your nutrition.  Secondly, a properly trained doctor with experience in functional neurology and receptor-based brain training can work to allow your mesencephalon to work more efficiently.  We can use specific eye movements, light and sound stimulus, adjustments, soft tissue therapy, and brain activation to help dampen the effects of our stressful lives.


Next time, I will talk about the pons and medulla, and how they are crucial in balance and stability, inner ear function, respiration, and gut function.  Thanks for reading!


If you have topics you’d like me to cover in future blog posts, email me at, or find me on Twitter at @DrMParekhNeuro.  And for more information about the services we offer that can help with brain functionality, please visit us at .

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