Despite its smaller size, the diencephalon is a crucial player in a healthy brain and bodily functioning. It consists of various structures, each with its job and function.
The diencephalon is divvied into four structures – the thalamus, hypothalamus, epithalamus, metathalamus, and subthalamus. The diencephalon plays an important role in regulating the endocrine system hormones, transmitting sensory and motor impulses to the cerebral cortex, and regulating sleep.
While it's easy to list the important functions of the diencephalon, understanding it requires a more in-depth look at what each of the parts does and how they help the brain and body to function.
Each component in the diencephalon is specialized and integral to day-to-day functioning.
The diencephalon is the primary location for processing sensory and motor information. It is also super important in the autonomic control of muscles and organs.
The diencephalon's large variety of roles in the body renders the area in which it is located extremely diverse.
Some of the roles it has in the body include:
- Regulating memory and emotion in the limbic system
- Coordinating motor movements in the basal ganglia
- And working with primary senses like hearing or seeing
To better understand how the diencephalon plays a part in these processes, it is helpful to look at the anatomy.
The diencephalon is a part of the brain situated in the midbrain and almost entirely covered by the cerebrum.
The diencephalon is exposed only at the base of the brain in the interpeduncular fossa.
The third ventricle is a cavity inside the diencephalon and is important in cerebrospinal fluid production.
It has a cuboid structure that comprises a roof, floor, and four walls. There are two lateral walls and one anterior and posterior one.
The main elements of the diencephalon include the following:
It also contains the hypophysis cerebri (pituitary gland) and the third ventricle.
When looking at the diencephalon, it's important to consider the structures in the third ventricle.
To consider the structures of the diencephalon, one must look at the roof, floor, and four walls.
Two blood vessel plexuses can be found in the tela choroidea – these are the choroid plexuses of the third ventricle, one of the main sites producing cerebrospinal fluid.
The floor of the diencephalon comprises the optic chiasm, the tuber cinereum, and the infundibulum. It also contains the mammillary bodies (part of the limbic system), the posterior perforated substance, and the upper part of the mesencephalic tegmentum.
The anterior wall is located on the lamina terminalis, the anterior commissure, and the anterior column of the fornix. In contrast, the posterior wall is formed by part of the pineal gland, the posterior commissure, and the Habenular commissures.
Because the diencephalon is located in the brain's center, it has a great supply of blood vessels.
The most important blood vessels include the thalamoperforating branches of the posterior cerebral artery, the posterior communicating artery, and the thalamogeniculate branches of the posterior cerebral artery.
Now that you know the diencephalon's basic location, structure, and blood supply, it's time to look at the main parts and their respective functions.
The thalamus is the diencephalon's largest mass of grey matter and is laterally related to the third ventricle.
The thalamus has an anterior and posterior pole located between the cerebral cortices and the midbrain.
Alongside the poles, the thalamus also has four surfaces: the superior, inferior, medial, and lateral.
The superior part of the thalamus is covered by the stratum zonale, a thin layer of white matter, while the lateral surface is covered in the external medullary lamina.
There are sixteen cranial nerve nuclei, of which the thalamus comprises several of these.
The nuclei can be divided into five main groups, including the anterior, lateral, medial, intralaminar, and reticular nuclei.
These nuclei are vital to ensure the brain and the body function as they should.
Some of the processes and functions it aids include:
- Relaying motor signals
- Relaying sensory signals
- Regulating consciousness
- Controlling wake and sleep cycles
- Maintaining alertness
The location of the nucleic structures, especially the thalamic reticular nucleus, is often debated.
Currently, the thalamic reticular nucleus is considered to be a part of the ventral thalamus, but research is still being conducted to confirm its exact location.
The thalamic surfaces, also known as the thalamencephalon, can be located behind the interventricular foramen of Monro.
The biggest part of the lateral wall of the third ventricle is formed by the medial surface, which is lined by the ependyma.
The connexus is a mass of grey matter and attaches to the medial surface of the thalami – its function is to act as a signaling pathway between the left and right thalami.
Additionally, the internal capsule is a two-way tract for transmitting information to and from the cerebral cortex and is related to the lateral part of the thalamus.
The internal capsule separates the thalamic surface from the lentiform nucleus of the basal ganglia.
The thalamus and the caudate nucleus form the central part of the lateral ventricles – it also contains cerebrospinal fluid, which helps to circulate nutrients and remove waste products from the body.
The medial part of the top of the thalamus is separated from the ventricles via the fornix and the tela choroidea.
The point where the medial and lateral surfaces meet is reflected by a line traveling from the lateral wall to the roof of the thalamus.
This line is called the taenia thalami; underneath it, you can locate a bundle of fibers known as the stria medullaris thalami.
The stria medullaris functions to convey input to both habenular nuclei, which are vital in regulating neurotransmitters in the central nervous system.
The epithalamus is the most distal section of the diencephalon from which the pineal gland extends posteriorly.
It comprises the following structures:
- Stria medullaris
- Posterior commissure
- Habenular nuclei
- Pineal body
- Paraventricular nuclei
- Stria medullaris of the thalamus
- Habenular trigone
- Stria medullaris of the thalamus
- Stria medullaris thalami
Locate closely to the taenia thalami is the stria medullaris, a group of fibers that run along the joint of the superior and medial parts of the thalamus.
The stria medullaris runs along the length of the anterior pole of the thalamus towards the Habenular trigone.
Some fibers cross the pineal stalk's superior lamina to reach Habenular nuclei's opposite side.
The fibers that make up the Habenular commissure also connect the amygdaloid and the hippocampal complexes on either side of the cerebral hemispheres.
The inferior lamina of the pineal body hosts the posterior commissure.
Various nuclei are present in this commissure and include some of the following important nuclei:
- The interstitial nuclei of the posterior commissure
- The dorsal nuclei of the posterior commissure
- The nucleus of Darkschewitsch
- The interstitial nucleus of Cajal
Located posteriorly to the third ventricle is the pineal gland.
It is a super important part of the brain that consists of cells known as pinealocytes which secrete melatonin in response to darkness – which means it is super important in the natural sleep-wake cycle.
Alongside melatonin, the pineal body is also important in the process of secreting polypeptide hormones that regulate the endocrine system.
The pineal body influences the following organs:
- Pituitary gland
- Adrenal glands
The hormones involved with the pineal gland reach the hypophysis cerebri via the blood and cerebrospinal fluid.
The pineal gland can calcify as a person ages, and in severe cases, corpora arenacea or brain sand forms.
The subthalamus is the part of the diencephalon that lies below the back side of the thalamus and laterally to the hypothalamus.
This part of the diencephalon includes various nuclei and sections of grey matter like:
- The zona incerta – this part is essential in providing GABAergic stimulation
- The reticular nucleus – is important in regulating the GABAergic in relation to the thalamocortical pathway
- The pre-geniculate nucleus – this and the lateral geniculate nucleus create the lateral geniculate complex
The subthalamus is continuous with the upper parts of the midbrain's red nucleus and substantia nigra of the tegmentum.
Laterally the subthalamus reaches the lowest part of the internal capsule.
The subthalamus has a few connections important to note. The first of these connections is related to the pre-geniculate nucleus.
The pre-geniculate nucleus includes fibers from the retina, the superior colliculus, and the pretectal region. Its connections to these locations mean it is vital in coordinating eye movement and controlling vision.
The zona incerta forms strong connections with the thalamus's reticular nucleus, which it connects to as a thin lamina of grey matter.
The zona incerta is believed to regulate visceral activities such as sexual activity, hydration, food intake, and cardiovascular activity.
Fibers that emerge from the dorsal thalamus travel through the ventral thalamus to the reticular nucleus.
As the name suggests, these fibers give the nucleus a reticulated appearance.
The reticular nucleus consists of a thin layer of neurons covering the lateral aspect of the dorsal thalamus and is related to the internal capsule.
Inferiorly, the reticular nucleus becomes semi-continuous with the zona incerta.
The main fibers of the reticular nucleus pass to the dorsal thalamus, but afferents reach it from the nucleus cuneiform.
Other connections of the subthalamus include:
- Afferents from the cerebral cortex
- The putamen
- The globus pallidus
- The trigeminal nuclei
- The cerebellar nuclei
- The pretectal region
These connections reach the reticular nucleus and zona incerta and send efferent fibers through those structures and to the spinal cord.
The ventral thalamus also connects with the dentate nucleus, cerebral peduncle, fasciculus lenticularis, ansa lenticularis, pre-rubral field, and the thalamic fasciculus.
The hypothalamus lies below the thalamus and contains various subdivisions and nuclei.
Some of these nuclei include the periventricular zone, the medial zone, and the lateral zone.
Medially, the hypothalamus forms a wall that creates the third ventricle below the hypothalamic sulcus.
Posteriorly, the hypothalamus combines with the ventral thalamus and also passes through it to create the tegmentum of the midbrain.
Anteriorly, the hypothalamus extends all the way to the lamina terminalis and merges with olfactory structures.
Inferiorly, it relates to the floor structures that create the third ventricle. These include the tuber cinereum, the mammillary bodies, and the infundibulum.
Through the infundibulum, the hypothalamus connects to the pituitary gland.
The hypothalamus is divided into three main zones (medially to laterally):
- The periventricular
- The medial
- The lateral
The hypothalamus has three regions from the anterior to the posterior side: anterior, medial, and posterior.
The nuclei of the hypothalamus are located within the regions, and functionally it consists of four groups:
The hypothalamus is mainly involved in the processes of cognitive behavior. It owes this to its connection to other anatomical areas that correspond to these activities.
The hypothalamus's main function is to regulate hunger and thirst patterns, regulate sexual activities and desires, and control autonomic activity.
It additionally regulates emotional behaviors, controls the endocrine system, responds to stress, regulates body temperature, and controls sleep-wake cycles.
The diencephalon is obviously a vital part of normal brain functioning.
It's easy to understand then that if any part of the diencephalon is damaged through either vascular or neoplastic lesions, there could be a problem with the function of the part damaged.
An example of this is Russell-Silver syndrome which can be characterized by:
- Intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR)
- Hindered or poor growth after birth
- Relatively large head size
- Triangular facial appearance
- Prominent forehead
- Body asymmetry
- Feeding difficulties
- And more
The primary cause of this disorder is neoplastic damage to the optic and hypothalamic region.
In rare instances, Russell's syndrome will limit the patient from reaching developmental milestones.
Another known syndrome related to diencephalon damage is Panhypopituitarism.
A deficiency in pituitary hormones is classified as panhypopituitarism, resulting from a gland impairment or dysregulation in the hypothalamus.
Other injuries that could result in hypopituitarism include postpartum pituitary necrosis, traumatic brain injury, or radiation therapy on the pituitary.
The diencephalon is the brain region that gives rise to anterior forebrain structures. Some of these structures include the thalamus, hypothalamus, posterior portion of the pituitary gland, and pineal gland. The diencephalon also encloses a cavity called the third ventricle.
Because it contains so many structures, it has a wide variety of functions that regulate the body and keep it working as intended. Damage to this area can result in irreversible brain damage; most of the time, the location of brain damage will determine the symptoms the person experiences.