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What Is the Medulla Oblongata?

The medulla oblongata or simply ‘medulla’ is part of the brainstem, and is located between the pons of the brainstem and the spinal cord. It controls a few vital functions as it contains containing cardiac, respiratory and vasomotor centers. It also manages autonomic functions like the heart rate and blood pressure, breathing, and swallowing. It is a part of the brain that functions without needing direct communication from the brain, as it retrieves its input from the spinal cord and various nerves.

Respiration is controlled through chemo receptors measuring oxygen and other parameters. They communicate with the medulla, which adapts the way of breathing if necessary. For cardiac functions, the medulla relies on impulses from the sympathetic and parasympathetic system. It also communicates directly with baroreceptors in the vestibular system in order to control reactions through the vasomotor centre. Various reflex centers in the digestive system, throat and other areas regulate vomiting, coughing, sneezing and swallowing reflexes together with the medulla.

The blood flow towards the medulla is supplied by the anterior spinal artery, the posterior inferior cerebellar artery and direct branches of the vertebral artery. Blockage of these arteries can result in medial and lateral medullar syndrome. As long as the medulla is working properly, people with severe brain damage can still maintain autonomously functioning bodies, leaving them in a persistent vegetative or brain dead state. Severe damage to the medulla, which can recover depending on the nature of the inflicted damage, can result in the need for life support to maintain certain functions.

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