The Subcortical Structures

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Source: OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

Beneath the cerebral cortex are sets of nuclei known as subcortical nuclei that augment cortical processes. The nuclei of the basal forebrain serve as the primary location for acetylcholine production, which modulates the overall activity of the cortex, possibly leading to greater attention to sensory stimuli. Alzheimer’s disease is associated with a loss of neurons in the basal forebrain. The hippocampus and amygdala are medial-lobe structures that, along with the adjacent cortex, are involved in long-term memory formation and emotional responses. The basal nuclei are a set of nuclei in the cerebrum responsible for comparing cortical processing with the general state of activity in the nervous system to influence the likelihood of movement taking place. For example, while a student is sitting in a classroom listening to a lecture, the basal nuclei will keep the urge to jump up and scream from actually happening. (The basal nuclei are also referred to as the basal ganglia, although that is potentially confusing because the term ganglia is typically used for peripheral structures.)

The major structures of the basal nuclei that control movement are the caudate, putamen, and globus pallidus, which are located deep in the cerebrum. The caudate is a long nucleus that follows the basic C-shape of the cerebrum from the frontal lobe, through the parietal and occipital lobes, into the temporal lobe. The putamen is mostly deep in the anterior regions of the frontal and parietal lobes. Together, the caudate and putamen are called the striatum. The globus pallidus is a layered nucleus that lies just medial to the putamen; they are called the lenticular nuclei because they look like curved pieces fitting together like lenses. The globus pallidus has two subdivisions, the external and internal segments, which are lateral and medial, respectively.

The basal nuclei in the cerebrum are connected with a few more nuclei in the brain stem that together act as a functional group that forms a motor pathway. Two streams of information processing take place in the basal nuclei. All input to the basal nuclei is from the cortex into the striatum. The direct pathway is the projection of axons from the striatum to the globus pallidus internal segment (GPi) and the substantia nigra pars reticulata (SNr). The GPi/SNr then projects to the thalamus, which projects back to the cortex. The indirect pathway is the projection of axons from the striatum to the globus pallidus external segment (GPe), then to the subthalamic nucleus (STN), and finally to GPi/SNr. The two streams both target the GPi/SNr, but one has a direct projection and the other goes through a few intervening nuclei. The direct pathway causes the disinhibition of the thalamus (inhibition of one cell on a target cell that then inhibits the first cell), whereas the indirect pathway causes, or reinforces, the normal inhibition of the thalamus. The thalamus then can either excite the cortex (as a result of the direct pathway) or fail to excite the cortex (as a result of the indirect pathway).

The switch between the two pathways is the substantia nigra pars compacta, which projects to the striatum and releases the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine receptors are either excitatory (D1-type receptors) or inhibitory (D2-type receptors). The direct pathway is activated by dopamine, and the indirect pathway is inhibited by dopamine. When the substantia nigra pars compacta is firing, it signals to the basal nuclei that the body is in an active state, and movement will be more likely. When the substantia nigra pars compacta is silent, the body is in a passive state, and movement is inhibited. To illustrate this situation, while a student is sitting listening to a lecture, the substantia nigra pars compacta would be silent and the student less likely to get up and walk around. Likewise, while the professor is lecturing, and walking around at the front of the classroom, the professor’s substantia nigra pars compacta would be active, in keeping with his or her activity level.


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: