The Cranial Nerves


Source: OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

The nerves attached to the brain are the cranial nerves, which are primarily responsible for the sensory and motor functions of the head and neck (one of these nerves targets organs in the thoracic and abdominal cavities as part of the parasympathetic nervous system). There are twelve cranial nerves, which are designated CNI through CNXII for “Cranial Nerve,” using Roman numerals for 1 through 12. They can be classified as sensory nerves, motor nerves, or a combination of both, meaning that the axons in these nerves originate out of sensory ganglia external to the cranium or motor nuclei within the brain stem. Sensory axons enter the brain to synapse in a nucleus. Motor axons connect to skeletal muscles of the head or neck. Three of the nerves are solely composed of sensory fibers; five are strictly motor; and the remaining four are mixed nerves.

Learning the cranial nerves is a tradition in anatomy courses, and students have always used mnemonic devices to remember the nerve names. A traditional mnemonic is the rhyming couplet, “On Old Olympus’ Towering Tops/A Finn And German Viewed Some Hops,” in which the initial letter of each word corresponds to the initial letter in the name of each nerve. The names of the nerves have changed over the years to reflect current usage and more accurate naming. An exercise to help learn this sort of information is to generate a mnemonic using words that have personal significance.

The olfactory nerve and optic nerve are responsible for the sense of smell and vision, respectively. The oculomotor nerve is responsible for eye movements by controlling four of the extraocular muscles. It is also responsible for lifting the upper eyelid when the eyes point up, and for pupillary constriction. The trochlear nerve and the abducens nerve are both responsible for eye movement, but do so by controlling different extraocular muscles. The trigeminal nerve is responsible for cutaneous sensations of the face and controlling the muscles of mastication. The facial nerve is responsible for the muscles involved in facial expressions, as well as part of the sense of taste and the production of saliva. The vestibulocochlear nerve is responsible for the senses of hearing and balance. The glossopharyngeal nerve is responsible for controlling muscles in the oral cavity and upper throat, as well as part of the sense of taste and the production of saliva. The vagus nerve is responsible for contributing to homeostatic control of the organs of the thoracic and upper abdominal cavities. The spinal accessory nerve is responsible for controlling the muscles of the neck, along with cervical spinal nerves. The hypoglossal nerve is responsible for controlling the muscles of the lower throat and tongue.

Three of the cranial nerves also contain autonomic fibers, and a fourth is almost purely a component of the autonomic system. The oculomotor, facial, and glossopharyngeal nerves contain fibers that contact autonomic ganglia. The oculomotor fibers initiate pupillary constriction, whereas the facial and glossopharyngeal fibers both initiate salivation. The vagus nerve primarily targets autonomic ganglia in the thoracic and upper abdominal cavities.

Another important aspect of the cranial nerves that lends itself to a mnemonic is the functional role each nerve plays. The nerves fall into one of three basic groups. They are sensory, motor, or both. The sentence, “Some Say Marry Money But My Brother Says Brains Beauty Matter More,” corresponds to the basic function of each nerve. The first, second, and eighth nerves are purely sensory: the olfactory (CNI), optic (CNII), and vestibulocochlear (CNVIII) nerves. The three eye-movement nerves are all motor: the oculomotor (CNIII), trochlear (CNIV), and abducens (CNVI). The spinal accessory (CNXI) and hypoglossal (CNXII) nerves are also strictly motor. The remainder of the nerves contain both sensory and motor fibers. They are the trigeminal (CNV), facial (CNVII), glossopharyngeal (CNIX), and vagus (CNX) nerves. The nerves that convey both are often related to each other. The trigeminal and facial nerves both concern the face; one concerns the sensations and the other concerns the muscle movements. The facial and glossopharyngeal nerves are both responsible for conveying gustatory, or taste, sensations as well as controlling salivary glands. The vagus nerve is involved in visceral responses to taste, namely the gag reflex. This is not an exhaustive list of what these combination nerves do, but there is a thread of relation between them.

Source: OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology


Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:


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