Studying Neuroanatomy

The study of neuroscience relies on possessing a fundamental knowledge of the brain’s architectural (structural) components and associated peripheral nervous system. Architectural characteristics range from microscopic (neurons and subcellular proteins) to macroscopic (neural networks and interconnecting pathways), that support functional interactions within the systems that yield cognitive, emotional, and subjective experiential products. Functionality of the nervous system, from physiology to psychology, begins with understanding complex neuroanatomical structure.

Understanding the brain requires working knowledge of hundreds of anatomical units residing within the brain, the structure and purpose of thousands of cellular (neural, glial, vascular) and protein structures, the connective pathways, and the roles of sensory sources of information and motor response systems. Understanding the direct cognitive and motor responses to stimuli—external as well as internal—and the epiphenomena of mind, consciousness, and self is virtually dependent on knowledge of neuroanatomical structures and how they function.

The following guidance provides a structural and functional approach to acquiring essential neuroanatomical knowledge. The approach involves two levels: the microscopic world of neurons, glia, supportive tissues, and proteins, and the macroscopic aggregation of microscopic structures into macroscopic brain parts.

Cells: Neurons and Glia

While the neuron is touted as the cell that runs the brain, glial cells (actually more numerous in the brain than neurons) play a crucial role in the comprehensive development and functioning of the brain.

The neuron must be understood in its physiological capacity to contribute to brain circuits, networks, and sensory-motor functions. Neurons, by virtue of their trillions of synaptic interconnectivity, provide the complex organizational structure that produces behavior and mind.

Virtually any textbook on brain-behavior relationships or introductory neuroscience will contain at least a couple of chapters on neuron structure and electrochemical physiology. Succinct coverage of essential anatomy and function of the neuron may be found in any of the following resources.

  • Watson, N.V., & Breedlove, S.M. (2012). The Mind’s Machine: Foundations of Brain and Behavior. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, Inc. Excellent graphics and clear prose offer introductory-level contents.
  • Siegel, A., & Sapru, H.N. (2011). Essential Neuroscience (2nd ed.). Baltimore: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. Section II (Chapters 5-8) offer succinct instruction, yet more detail than is found in the Garrett textbook.
  • Fields, R.D. (2009). The Other Brain: From Dementia to Schizophrenia, How New Discoveries about the Brain Are Revolutionizing Medicine and Science. New York: Simon & Schuster. This book offers a story about glia and the role these brain cells play alongside neurons. This is the latest best trade book on the topic.

Gross Neuroanatomy

Once an appreciation and working knowledge of the microscopic world of the brain (neurons and glia) is achieved, learning the gross anatomy of the brain may be tackled. Because of its irregular, contorted, and intertwined structures, learning three-dimensional brain anatomy can be challenging, to say the least. There are two ways for approaching learning the brain’s complex structures: (1) brute force memorization and 3-D imagination, or (2) imagining sequential development from simple initial structures that ultimately morph into the adult brain configuration.

Looking at pictures and drawings of the human brain and learning the names of its discernable features (lobes, gyri, nuclei clusters, prominent tracts, etc.), from all three dimensions (dorsal-ventral, anterior-posterior, and left-right), gradually allows one to construct a mental image of the brain. “Reading” brain scans requires one to extrapolate and identify three-dimensional structures from different planes presented in only two dimensional slices. Having a mental 3-D image of all the convolutions and intertwined structures is essential in order to understand a slice at any given plane.

An alternative to the brute force approach is to gradually construct a mental image of the adult brain as it manifests itself during the initial months of gestation. Starting with the emergence of the neuroectoderm and the gradual addition of millions of cells, sets of which differentiate and eventually configure the mature brain, one can “see” where anatomical parts came from. The final configuration—from basic neural tube to convoluted ventricles, from telencephalon to cerebral lobes—can be appreciated as the product of organized tissue growth occurring within a confined cranium.

The following texts offer a particularly good balance of prose and pictures for learning gross anatomy:

  • Felten, D.L., & Shetty, A.N. (2010). Netter’s Atlas of Neuroscience (2nd Ed.). Philadelphia: Saunders/Elsevier. This is a particularly well presented atlas of brain anatomy using excellent art produced by medical illustrator Frank Netter and others. Highly recommended.
  • Hendelman, W.J. (2006). Atlas of Functional Neuroanatomy (2nd Ed.). New York: Taylor & Francis. The excellence of three-dimensional drawings and an included interactive CD-ROM makes this text particularly lucid and invaluable.
  • Nolte, J. (2010). Essentials of the Human Brain. Philadelphia: Mosby Elsevier. This 200-page book offers descriptive text, drawings, and flow charts on nearly every part and process of the human brain. Quizzes are also included at the conclusions of each of the 24 brief chapters. A particularly valuable aspect of this book is the inclusion of more than two dozen unlabeled drawings of brain structures, neurons, sensory systems, and spinal cord.
  • Siegel & Sapru, see above.
  • Watson & Breedlove, see above.
  • Kolb, B., & Whishaw, I.Q. (2011). An Introduction to Brain and Behavior (3rd ed.). New York: Worth Publ. A good and clearly written introductory text that covers neuroanatomy well. Illustrations are not as well done as in the Garrett text.
  • Purves, D., Augustine, G.J., Fitzpatrick, D., Hall, W.C., LaMantia, A-S., McNamara, J.O., and White, L.E., Eds. (2008). Neuroscience (4th Ed.). Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Assoc. A more advanced text with excellent depth of coverage of both neurons and gross neuroanatomy, as well as systems and cognition.
  • Price, D.J., Jarman, A.P., Mason, J.O., & Kind, P.C. (2011). Building Brains: An Introduction to Neural Development. West Sussx, UK: Wiley-Blackwell. This is another excellent source, although rather detailed for the novice. Because of the technical (and ethical) challenges of observing human brain development, this text relies heavily on animal models, including mouse and chicks. Application to human neural development is presented as appropriate. A thorough and detailed book.
  • Grossinger, R. (2000). Embryogenesis: Species, Gender, and Identity. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books. This slightly older and definitely erudite 779-page tome covers embryo development in a much more poetic than pictorial fashion. It is recommended for those who enjoy reading, sometimes almost poetic, about development than looking at pictures. This book also focuses on aspects of human development other than the brain. But, it is very interesting and engaging reading, adding the development of mind, gender, self, and spirituality to neural systems.

In addition to print resources for learning neuron and brain functional anatomy, several excellent Internet sites offer varying levels of learning aids. The following links are recommended and should be selected based on one’s level of prior knowledge.

Atlas of the Human Brain contains extensively labeled drawings of brain slices alongside brain imaging scans. An in-depth and comprehensive atlas for learning detailed neuroanatomy. A printed book of the website is available.

Allen Institute for Brain Science contains “a multi-modal, multi-resolution atlas detailing gene expression across the adult human brain.” This site is a bit cumbersome to use but with enough time to learn how to use it, revelations about the correlation of brain structure and genetic expression will make it worthwhile.

The Sylvius neuroanatomy site offers detailed and labeled graphics of brain anatomy. By clicking on a specific structure, one or more graphics are pulled up showing the structure in context, along with a short narrative description. Very useful site for finding structures by name. The interactive atlas is also available as an off-line product. See the web site (search under Title: Sylvius) for details.

The Internet Pathology Laboratory for Medical Education hosts an excellent atlas of brain anatomy (as well as other histology and pathology sites). The neuroanatomy tutorial presents 60 photographic views of brain structures in various planes. By clicking on the names of structures, an indicator appears on the graphic showing its location. This is similar to the Sylvius site but starts with brain slice photographs (by name of plane (sagittal, coronal, or transverse) instead of names of specific structures.

The Washington University School of Medicine Neuroscience Tutorial presents, essentially, an on-line illustrated text covering not only neuroanatomy but sensory pathways, motor structures, and structures and functions of sleep and language. The site also contains a master index of anatomical names and in which section of the tutorial you can read about the structure and view images.

Michigan State University Brain Biodiversity Bank is a rich source of hundreds of MRI images. The user may view the raw MRI or ones labeled with prominent structures at the particular slice and plane. This is a great site for details and should probably be avoided for initial learning of basic neuroanatomy.

Brodmann Areas in the Human Brain are illustrated and described by Professor Mark Dubin at the University of Colorado. While Broadmann areas are not relied on for learning essential neuroanatomy, they are frequently referred to in the neuroscientific literature. This site is an excellent reference.

Wikimedia Commons is a good resource for brain photographic images of all sorts. Links are provided for labeled images and some descriptive text is provided.

In addition to the print resources indicated above, the following volume is recommended for students who are or will be developing their neuroanatomy knowledge well beyond the introductory level, and who want a carry-along atlas when Internet access is unavailable.

Woolsey, T.A., Hanaway, J., & Gado, M.H. (2008). The Brain Atlas: A Visual Guide to the Human Central Nervous System (3rd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. This publication is an atlas only. It contains very little text. The integration of drawings, photographs of brain slices, and neuroimaging scans is excellent. This volume is available in various formats, including paperback and spiral-bound. The spiral-bound edition is particularly handy to use.


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