The cerebellum, one of three main parts that make up your brain, is responsible for coordinating movement and balance. Also known as the “little brain,” it plays a vital role in language and attention and can assist people with vision and eye movement.
Located toward the back of the brain, the cerebellum is one of the densest structures in the brain and is well protected from trauma compared to the brain stem, frontal, and temporal lobes. When a person experiences damage to this area, it may result in movement and coordination difficulties. It could also make it hard to maintain posture or control motor learning. Continue reading to discover more about the functions, anatomy, and disorders linked to the cerebellum.
What Is the Cerebellum?
The cerebellum is a major structure of your hindbrain responsible for a wide range of functions, including coordinating your movements. It is important in processing some types of memory. Over half of the nerve cells in our brains are found in the cerebellum, and during several important mental processes, the cerebellum plays an essential role and receives information from the other regions of the brain.
The cerebellum, cerebrum, and brain stem are the three main parts of your brain. The brain stem connects to your spinal cord and sits just underneath the cerebrum. The largest part of the brain is the cerebrum, which consists of four lobes, each with a distinct function. It is responsible for managing processes such as breathing, digestion, and sleeping. A narrow midline area called the vermis connects the two hemispheres of the cerebellum. On the surface of the cerebellum is tightly folded gray matter.
What Does the Cerebellum Do?
Our understanding of the cerebellum continues to grow as technology advances. New studies analyzing the areas of the cerebellum that are most active during certain tasks demonstrate its role in controlling movement, regulating emotion, and making decisions. Along with voluntary movements you can control, the cerebellum is responsible for the following functions:
- Keeping you upright and steady
- Timing muscle actions and coordinating movement
- Coordinating eye movements
- Helping the body to learn movements (motor learning)
- Contributing to speech and language processing
- Playing a role in thinking and mood
By studying the brains of animals and people with cerebellum damage, researchers discovered that these test subjects had difficulty standing, walking, and keeping their balance. Damage to the cerebellum might also make it harder to learn new words or acquire new skills. It may even affect a person’s sense of timing or their ability to judge the size of or distance from an object.
Importance of the Cerebellum
Forming a half-circle shape around your brain stem, the cerebellum sits at about the same level as your ears, is pinkish-gray, and weighs about 6 ounces. There are a series of horizontal grooves on the cerebellum from top to bottom. Located at the back of the brain, the cerebellum can be found beneath the back of the cerebrum, below the temporal and occipital lobes.
In rare cases, a person can be born without a cerebellum, a condition known as cerebellar agenesis. Those with cerebellar agenesis can often carry on with their lives as anyone else would, but those who experience more severe symptoms may require regular medical care.
When a person sustains damage to their cerebellum from a disease or injury, there may be long-term consequences. Damage to the cerebellum could make it difficult for a person to move, and they may experience difficulty with balance or involuntary muscle contractions.
Head injury, infection, brain tumor, stroke, and certain medications are just some of the many ways the cerebellum may sustain damage. Some examples of conditions that could result from damage to the cerebellum include:
- Ataxia (both a symptom and a group of diseases characterized by changes in movement and speech)
- Dystonia (involuntary muscle spasms and twisting or repetitive motions)
- Tremors (loss of muscle coordination that leads to a shaking movement)
- Vision problems
- Nystagmus (abnormal eye movements)
- Dysmetria (inability to judge distance)
Infections, cancer, nutrition problems, genetic disorders, and vitamin deficiencies are all examples of conditions that cause cerebellar dysfunction. Depending on the condition that’s affecting a person’s cerebellum, treatment options will vary and can range from simple antibiotics for an infection to chemotherapy for brain tumors. Research suggests that cerebellar dysfunction may play a role in conditions like autism spectrum disorder (ASD), anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and dyslexia.
Lifestyle Choices to Keep Your Brain Healthy
Avoiding damage to your cerebellum by reducing your risk of injury is a good way to maintain good brain health. Although it's small, the cerebellum is crucial to functions such as language, emotions, movement, and balance.
Some lifestyle habits that help take care of your cerebellum include:
- Eating a healthy diet
- Treating infections quickly
- Wearing safety equipment when appropriate
- Quitting smoking
- Limiting your consumption of alcohol
- Exercising regularly
- Taking your medications as prescribed
- Protecting your head
- Reducing air pollution in your home
- Protecting your ears to prevent hearing loss
- Keeping your blood pressure low
When you walk, hike, or play ball, your cerebellum is at work. You can reduce your risk of cognitive decline by adopting important lifestyle changes. Elevate blood flow by exercising regularly. Taking free, online classes can reduce your risk of dementia, keep your brain sharp, and help you learn something new. Wearing your helmet while on a bike or your seatbelt while in a car can reduce your risk of brain injury. Taking care of your brain and mental health by managing stress is an excellent way to maintain brain health.