Basal Forebrain (Location + Function)

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Practical Psychology

The Basal Forebrain is an association of individual nuclei components of the forebrain, situated in front of and below the striatum. The assortment of varied, distinct telencephalic structures resides in the medial and ventral planes of the cerebral hemisphere.

The basal forebrain projects cholinergic neurons throughout the cortical surface. The distinct nuclei of the basal forebrain produce acetylcholine- circulated cranially. The neuronal constituents are essential in thermoregulation, sleep-wake control, motor coordination, and cognition.

The basal forebrain is characterized by distinct heterogeneity- neurochemical and anatomical. In addition to the cholinergic neuron, two other noteworthy neuronal populations project from the basal forebrain- GABAergic and glutamatergic. (Discussed more fully below).

The Location of the Basal Forebrain

The basal forebrain roughly refers to the approximate area close to the interior plane of the telencephalon. This inexact region is situated between the hypothalamus and the orbital cortex. The basal forebrain extends to the anterior perforated substance. Perforated is, as the name implies- an appearance of many tiny holes that are blood vessels.

Characterized by an extended continuation of subcortical nuclei, the basal forebrain projects to varied limbic and neocortical regions fundamental to cognitive functions. Therefore, the basal forebrain is physiologically positioned to regulate extensive cognitive functions.

The basal forebrain sits at a crucial intersection of a network that relays the cognitive processes of motivation and attention. The ventral striatal area’s principal output projection is integral to reward-motivation behavioral operations.

As the nucleus accumbens projects GABAergic neurons to the basal forebrain, the basal forebrain transmits GABAergic and cholinergic neurons to the prefrontal cortex. Therefore, the basal forebrain is an intermediary between the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex.

The Function of the Basal Forebrain

The heterogeneous character of the basal forebrain describes the various individual roles integral to its participation in cognitive functioning, like memory, motivation, determining consequences, and movement. The cell structure, length, and function are also varied.

There are aspects of the basal forebrain that regulate body temperature. The medial preoptic/anterior hypothalamic regions have thermosensiting and thermointegrating capacity. These areas also regulate sleep.

The basal forebrain is a crucial aspect of the central nervous system that initiates and sustains sleep patterns. Other cranial structures of the central nervous system that manage sleep include the midline brainstem and the dorsolateral medullary reticular formation. (Among others)

The miscellaneous arrangement of the neurons in the basal forebrain comprises large, lengthy, slow-firing cholinergic neurons and large, rapid-firing cortically-projecting GABAergic neurons, slower-firing somatostatin/GABAergic neurons, glutamatergic neurons, and the ever-pervasive glia cells.

The cholinergic neuron’s protracted discharge inhibits cortical delta activity. In addition, the cholinergic neurons are responsible for cortical plasticity and reorganization. The rapid firing of the GABAergic neurons elicits an arousal state and facilitates high-speed cortical operations. Specifically, parvalbumin/GABAergic neurons stimulate neocortical gamma activity.  

In contrast, stimulation of the slower-firing somatostatin/GABAergic neurons assists sleep. Sleep is facilitated via suppression of cortical projections and homeostatic regulation. In comparison, the activation of glutamatergic neurons elicits states of arousal and wakefulness. The GABAergic neurons are also believed to assist in decision-making and regulating the cortical network.

The cholinergic neurons indirectly facilitate wakefulness via stimulation of cortical projecting GABAergic neurons and inhibition of sleep-inducing somatostatin/GABAergic neurons. The typically abundant glia boost adenosine levels during states of extended conscious arousal.

The Basal Forebrain’s Neuronal Composition

At least three definite neuronal populations comprise the basal forebrain- cholinergic, GABAergic, and glutamatergic. The neurochemical and physiological heterogeneity of the basal forebrain has both ascending cortical projection and descending subcortical projections.

The heterogeneity of the basal forebrain is illustrated in the intermingled neurons of the extended amygdala and ventral pallidum. In addition, it’s demonstrated in the nucleus basalis, the principal neuromodulator, its projections reach throughout the cortex.

Focusing on subcortical projections, glutamatergic and GABAergic neurons demonstrate definite patterns of descending neuronal projections to subcortical regions. These projections arise from the substantia innominata and the magnocellular preoptic area- within the caudal and lateral plane of the basal forebrain.

The GABAergic and glutamatergic neurons reach across the length of the basal forebrain- from the medial septum, the band of Broca (vertical and horizontal limbs), to the magnocellular preoptic nucleus, and then to the substantia innominata. Accordingly, the substantia innominata and magnocellular preoptic area contain the most widespread subcortical projections.

Cholinergic descending pathways are scarce. Cholinergic neurons are triggered by various inputs, specifically, orexin neurons. The orexin cell bodies are generated in the postero-lateral hypothalamus. Connecting pathways from the basal forebrain to the hypothalamus elicit arousal via the production of orexin neurons.

Among the numerous afferent inputs to the basal forebrain cholinergic network, the hypothalamus is a significant supply of projections. Orexin neurons have extensive projections throughout the brain. Research has revealed the critical role of orexin neurons in arousal and attention. Evidence suggests that the basal forebrain is the binding site in which these neurons are realized.

The Basal Forebrain and Acetylcholine

Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter and functions in the central and peripheral nervous systems. This chemical messenger plays a significant role. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that provide communication via electrical impulses between neurons throughout the entire body.

These chemical messengers operate to enable the brain to perform various necessary functions. Neurotransmitters like acetylcholine engage neurons via chemical synapses- Acetylcholine assists with neuronal plasticity, promoting cognition and learning.

There are specific cells, in the basal forebrain, like cholinergic neurons, that produce acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is generated via synthesizing choline and acetyl-coenzyme A (acetyl-CoA). This formula happens in the cytoplasm in the neuron’s nerve terminals.

Acetylcholine facilitates cognitive functioning, and the large neurons transmitting acetylcholine are the first to degenerate during the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Although this area is extensively studied, the large cholinergic neurons are problematic to observe and understand due to their size against conventional methods.

The Basal Forebrain, Acetylcholine, and Motor Neurons

Acetylcholine is frequently referred to by its chemical symbol, ACh, and is responsible for muscle contraction. Its specialized function determines it’s the only neurotransmitter at the synapses between the motor neurons and the voluntary muscle.

Every aspect of human movement, from walking, talking, and breathing, is contingent on the release of acetylcholine by the motor neurons. Acetylcholine has an impact on receptor sites in the muscles. All neurotransmitters, including acetylcholine, elicit either excitatory or inhibitory effects.

Motor regulation involves specific modulatory input to delineate circuitry activity directing bodily movement. The baso-cortical cholinergic pathway is essential in acetylcholine production and facilitating coordinated action.

The Basal Forebrain, Acetylcholine, and Sleep

The basal forebrain involves thermoregulatory function and sleep-wake control. Acetylcholine enables states of arousal and REM sleep. Acetylcholine suppression in the basal forebrain from adenosine results in slow-wave sleep.

Cholinergic fibers belonging to the basal forebrain are responsible for sleep. The basal forebrain releases more acetylcholine during REM sleep than waking. Neuronal projections from the basal forebrain distribute acetylcholine throughout the cortex.

The Basal Forebrain, Acetylcholine, and Cognition

Acetylcholine has a prominent role in psychological processors like memory, learning, motivation, and alertness. In addition, the basal forebrain plays a role in regulating behavior. Acetylcholine significantly impacts the hippocampus and modulates cortical neurons.

The Basal Forebrain (BF) Cholinergic System

The arrangement of basal forebrain nuclei collectively presents a significant source of cholinergic projections to the hippocampus, neocortex, and amygdala. The cholinergic neurons that enable cognitive processes arrive predominantly from the basal forebrain nuclei. There are non-cholinergic neurons that operate with cholinergic neurons and regulate cortical activity.

The basal forebrain region is the area of an interconnecting network of cholinergic neurons. These nerve fibers extend across the whole cortical sphere and are integral to sleep onset and continuation.

The cholinergic system is comprised of three principal components. Firstly, areas in the ventral part of the forebrain are the nucleus basalis, the medial septum, and the diagonal band nuclei- secondly, the pons- finally, the striatum’s tiny interneurons.

The Elements of the Basal Forebrain

The basal forebrain cranial structures include the basal ganglia, the nucleus accumbens, the ventral pallidum, the nucleus basalis, diagonal band of Broca, substantia innominate, the septal areas, olfactory tubercule, substantia innominate, and parts of the amygdala.

Focusing on a select few anatomical structures within the dispersion of nuclei of the basal forebrain- the nucleus basalis, the substantia innominata (SI), and the diagonal band of Broca function in response to reward and motivation signals.

These assists in the neuronal modulatory circuitry of the brain. Specifically, the neuronal projections from the basal forebrain to the prefrontal cortex reveal relevant connections for cognitive processes- learning, memory, arousal, decision-making, and attention maintenance.

The Basal Ganglia

The phrase basal refers to the location of these nuclei at the base of the brain. However, ganglia are misnamed. Contemporary neuropsychology generally uses the word ganglia to denote the neurons belonging to the peripheral nervous system- nerves that extend beyond the brain and spinal cord. The term nucleus indicates a collection of neurons in the central nervous system.

The basal ganglia consist of an assortment of subcortical nuclei. Their main task is managing motor function. However, they are also responsible for motor learning, emotions, behaviors, and executive functions. The basal ganglia’s role in motion is convoluted, sophisticated, and not fully understood.

The individual nuclei of the basal ganglia each are responsible for a specific function throughout the brain. Their respective roles are extensive, yet these nuclei create an intricate network that communicates with each other and directs various emotional, cognitive, and action-associated operations.

The contribution to movement provided by the basal ganglia involves complex and versatile actions stimulated by positive outcomes and aversion prevention. The leading theory states that the basal ganglia initiate movement determined by desire and inhibit the activity of unwanted or competing signals.

The Nucleus Accumbens

The nucleus accumbens is a feature of the subcortical collection of basal ganglia (basal nuclei). This circular, dorsally flattened structure presents a neuronal intersection between action and motivation. It’s a significant part of the ventral striatum and mediates behavioral and emotional responses like reward and gratification.

The brain is divided along a groove called the longitudinal fissure, and each cerebral hemisphere has a nucleus accumbens. This basal forebrain region is located between the caudate and putamen. The putamen is a circular physiological structure situated at the base of the basal forebrain. Jointly, the putamen and caudate form the dorsal striatum.  

There are two components of the nucleus accumbens- the core and the shell. The shell of the nucleus accumbens is treated as an extension of the amygdala- it registers rewards and reacts to pleasurable stimuli and positive reinforcement.

The core of the nucleus accumbens is the inner structure and participates in motor functioning and coordination. The nucleus accumbens core regulates actions governed by motivation and rewards. In addition, the core modulates slow-wave sleep.

The Ventral Pallidum

This region exhibits reward and motivation incentivizing behavior. It’s a significant output for limbic signals, and due to this, the ventral pallidum was believed to function primarily for bodily movement. However, today its capacity as a reward mechanism is fully recognized.

The neuronal activation patterns determine reward feedback through specific encoding- external environmental stimuli direct reward feedback signals. The ventral pallidum regulates reward-seeking behavior. This basal forebrain structure is thoroughly researched regarding addictive behavior.

The ventral pallidum collects GABAergic input from the nucleus accumbens. These neurons regulate states of alertness and wakefulness. The functions of the ventral pallidum involve motivation, learning, and movement management and rely on the GABAergic fibers to perform.  

The ventral pallidum resides in a sizeable area beneath the anterior commissure, extending to the anterior perforated area. It continues directly to the caudal surface of the nucleus accumbens and reaches across the medial surface. The ventral pallidum doesn’t contain the nucleus basalis of Meynert.

The Nucleus Basalis

The neuronal fibers from the nucleus basalis project widely across the cerebral cortex, making it the primary cholinergic output. This basal forebrain area has an abundant supply of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine- more than any other cranial region.

The nucleus basalis, also called the nucleus basalis of Meynert or nucleus basalis of magnocellular, is a collection of neurons situated predominantly in the substantia innominata. This arrangement of cholinergic neurons is also strewn throughout the basal forebrain and is involved in the limbic system. It’s a vital component of memory.

The nucleus basalis is a loose arrangement of cholinergic neurons and is aligned rostrally with an uninterrupted sequence of the cholinergic neurons of the diagonal band of Broca. The basal forebrain’s cholinergic constitute, referred to as Ch4, is the primary basis for acetylcholine in the amygdala and cerebral cortex.  

The neuronal arrangement of the nucleus basalis has significant electrophysical properties in galvanizing or inhibiting various cortical regions. Limbic and paralimbic features receive significantly more cholinergic input from Ch4. This cholinergic foundation is also the primary source of reciprocal projections returning to the nucleus basalis.  

The Diagonal Band of Broca

Named after Paul Broca, a French neuroanatomist, this basal forebrain structure consists of the second most extensive cranial cholinergic neuronal arrangement. The diagonal band of Broca (DBB) presents as a diagonal tract between the medial septal area and the amygdala.

The diagonal band of Broca has significant projections into the hippocampus. It works with the medial septal nucleus and septum pellucidum in producing theta waves in the hippocampus. Evidence of the cholinergic contribution to the hippocampus from the band of Broca reveals itself in the increase of acetylcholine and the onset of theta waves via acetylcholine.

There are two distinct physiological properties of the band of Broca. These individual nuclei comprise the basal forebrain horizontal and vertical limbs. The flat nuclei are called nhlDBB. The vertical is referred to as nvlDBB.

Substantia Innominata

The substantia innominata is a shortening of substantia innominata of Meynert, thus called as it contains the nucleus basalis of Meynert. The nucleus of Meynert is abundant in acetylcholine. This basal ganglia area comprises a layering of grey (or gray) and white matter.

This basal forebrain structure is positioned beneath the anterior section of the thalamus and the lentiform nucleus. It’s incorporated as a part of the anterior perforated substance- indicating the continuous extension of the basal forebrain.

There are three layers of the substantia innominata- the superior, middle, and inferior. The superior layer is called the ansa lenticularis and is a source of cortical acetylcholine. The middle layer is composed of nerve cells and nerve fibers.     


The basal forebrain comprises distinct anatomical structures- a collection of telencephalic nuclei. This region, situated within the medial and ventral aspects of the cerebral hemisphere, serves as a neuronal intermediary that facilitates the regulation of cognition, wakefulness, REM sleep, and body temperature.

The basal forebrain structures are essential in producing acetylcholine, which is subsequently circulated throughout the brain. The basal forebrain is the chief cholinergic output of the central nervous system. There are at least two other neuronal populations- GABAergic and glutamatergic neurons.


Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2022, August). Basal Forebrain (Location + Function). Retrieved from

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