What is Your Basal Ganglia? How it Works for You

What is your basal ganglia? This tiny part of the brain is the mastermind behind all your daily activities. For all the work that it does to keep you functioning happily, it sure does not get enough credit. Appreciate the wonders of your basal ganglia by learning about its essential role in your everyday life!

What is Your Basal Ganglia?
What is Your Basal Ganglia?

What is your Basal Ganglia- All About Your Basal Ganglia:

Think about it: Have you ever wondered what’s behind all the voluntary movements that your body performs?

How are you able to flex your arms and legs forward so quickly that you don’t even have to think about it? Why do you walk on twos, compared to other animals? How does your mind just “know” how to coordinate your muscles to walk up and down a flight of stairs?

The term “basal ganglia” seems very scary when you first hear it. But really, it’s not so terrifying once you know the vital role it plays in your everyday life. The basal ganglia is a group of nuclei condensed together near your thalamus (located in your midbrain) that controls all sorts of voluntary movement. From when your arm stretches forward to grab your smartphone to when your legs run on incline during your intense treadmill workout, know that your basal ganglia is the one calling all of the shots. In other words, you can dub this brain structure as “The Master Monitor of All Movements.”

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The basal ganglia is specifically found on both sides of the thalamus, above and outside the limbic system, and inside the temporal lobes. Glutamate is a common neurotransmitter that works here, but the most important neurotransmitter working here is GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid). GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which means it helps to stop and reduce nerve impulses from crazy inter-neuron communication.

What is your Basal Ganglia-Functions of Your Basal Ganglia:

So what are some of the cool functions of your basal ganglia? Here is a breakdown of the jobs that this structure performs based on its various anatomical components:

What is your Basal Ganglia: The Caudate

The caudate nucleus sends messages to your frontal lobe, specifically to your orbital cortex (just above the eyes) which alerts you that something is not quite right with the physical situation you are in (usually during tense or anxious moments), so you should take action to fix your uneasiness. For example, if you just stepped out of a not-so-clean stall of a public bathroom, your caudate sends you sirens to “Wash your hands and make sure you scrub all corners!” Or, if you feel scared because you’re home alone late at night, you might get messages like “Lock the doors! Close the windows! Dim the lights!” If you possess an overactive caudate, you potentially can develop obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) because this area will keep releasing alert messages that will fill your brain with panic and restlessness. However, if you have an underactive caudate, you might be at risk for depression, attention-deficit disorder (ADD), certain forms of schizophrenia, plain lethargy, and the newly discovered PAP syndrome, which involves a dramatic loss of motivation for anything productive, because your caudate is not sending enough stimulation to the rest of your brain to “Get a move on!”

 What is your Basal Ganglia: The Putamen

The putamen lies directly underneath the caudate and controls your coordinated automatic behaviors, like riding a bike, driving a car, working on an assembly line, and any other task that doesn’t really involve upper-level thinking. Issues with the putamen are directly linked to Gilles de la Tourette’s syndrome, which involves an inability to control simple motor capabilities, like the movement of your hands or jerking of shoulder muscles.

what is your basal ganglia
What is your Basal Ganglia: The Putamen

What is your Basal Ganglia: Other Areas of the Basal Ganglia

The globus pallidus is located right inside the putamen and it receives inputs from the caudate and putamen and provides outputs to the substantia nigra.

The nucleus accumbens lies just below the putamen, and it receives signals from the prefrontal cortex (where higher-level thinking occurs) and sends other signals back to the globus pallidus. Dopamine is used to carry messages to the nucleus accumbens, so for patients who have motor disability diseases, this is the area that is targeted by drugs for the further release of dopamine, which is supposed to help stimulate or “kick on” physical activity.

The substantia nigra is found in the upper portions of the midbrain, underneath the thalamus, and it uses dopamine neurons to send signals to the striatum. Although its exact function is not yet known, this structure is involved in our physical comprehension of rewards for specific activities. GABA neurons are also secreted here, which function to control eye movements.

What Happens When Your Basal Ganglia Stops Working Correctly?

what is your basal ganglia
What Happens When Your Basal Ganglia Stops Working Correctly?

If any structure within the basal ganglia loses its proper function, then it can cause severe problems and diseases for individuals afflicted. Among the plethora of issues that take place from basal ganglia dysfunction, here are some of the following:

Parkinson’s Disease

This is characterized by tremors, rigid muscles, difficulty making quick and smooth movements, and trouble standing and walking. It originates with the death of cells in the substantia nigra and therefore a shortage of dopamine being secreted. This deterioration slowly progresses to other parts of the basal ganglia and the nerves that control all muscles, which involves other neurotransmitters. Possible contributing factors that lead to this disease include environmental toxins, genetics, or even head trauma.

In Dr. Oliver Sacks’s famous book Awakenings (1969), numerous case studies of patients who suffered from a severe but rare form of Parkinson’s disease, called post-encephalitic letharigica, are recounted by Dr. Sacks who directly dealt with these patients. He attempted to administer to them a drug named L-DOPA, known to increase dopamine levels in the substantia nigra, but its tremendous side effects caused its imminent discontinuance. Awakenings is a recommended reading for those who are more interested in Parkinson’s disease and the role the basal ganglia plays in its development.

Huntington’s Disease

This illness is characterized by loss of memory and odd jerking movements called chorea. It is a hereditary disease that usually shows up when an individual reaches age 30 and it involves cell death in the caudate nucleus. There is no cure, but there are many treatments available today that reduce its symptoms. Unfortunately, it is fatal and most patients usually pass away soon after diagnoses.

Cerebral Palsy

Patients have various motor problems, including spasticity (where muscles become too tight for movement), paralysis, and even seizures. It usually is attributed to brain damage, mostly before birth. Causes may include fetal infections, environmental toxins, or lack of oxygen.

PAP (or Athymhormic) Syndrome

The major symptom of this illness is an unusual lack of motivation. This is due to damage of the caudate nucleus, which results in a loss of emotional significance for anything important. Along with the heavy influence of the basal ganglia, the frontal lobe simply stops planning for the future. People with PAP syndrome tend to ignore the usual social and moral motivations most of us have instilled in us, like the sanctity of life or the need to develop yourself into an accomplished human being.

So, How Does Your Basal Ganglia Affect You?

After reading about what is your basal ganglia and some of its interesting jobs, how will you directly benefit from this brain structure?

Firstly, you should appreciate the intricate complexities behind every single aspect of your brain, especially that of your basal ganglia. This super-tiny area that is smaller than your thumb is what controls all of your motor functions. For being so little, it has quite a huge responsibility to carry.

Add to that, new research suggests that your basal ganglia might be the primary controller of action selection. That means that it helps you choose which activity you will perform at any given time. Plus, it is capable of doing “behavior switching,” so that you can change your behavior to match your circumstances at any moment without a second thought. Also, studies show that your basal ganglia contribute to your overall learning process – when you are either rewarded or punished for a given behavior, your basal ganglia keeps a record of this and will automatically stop or motivate you to continue in certain activities. Medical professionals suggest that you should exercise and keep your body fit in order to strengthen your basal ganglia. This will help reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease in later adulthood.

So, what is your basal ganglia and what does it do? Well, it’s essential for almost all the motor activities you perform that allow you to lead a healthy lifestyle. This tiny group of structures is often overlooked by the vast majority of mankind, mainly because we don’t know the complexity of our brain’s design or we take for granted the trivial movements we perform every day. So the next time you pick up your Cappuccino Espresso from the countertop or you ride your bike to the park, remember all the work your basal ganglia is doing just for you!

For more information about your basal ganglia, click here

Source: “The Basal Ganglia” by Dr. C. George Beoree

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