Skip main navigation

Brain Structure and Function Relationship

The human brain contains a large number of neurones and they appear to be organised within the brain so that, for example, cell bodies are grouped together. But how do these neurones need to be organised to allow the brain to perform the myriad of functions that it does?
Pictorial representation of human brain showing primary motor cortex and primary somesthetic cortex
© University of Birmingham

The human brain contains a large number of neurones and they appear to be organised within the brain so that, for example, cell bodies are grouped together. But how do these neurones need to be organised to allow the brain to perform the myriad of functions that it does?

Is Brain Function Localised?

It has been recognised for a very long time that if someone damaged their brain, then they might show some sort of functional deficit and that someone else who damaged their brain in a similar area would most likely show similar deficits. Conversely, two people with brain damage in different areas may well show very different deficits. This, of course, suggests that, at least to some extent, function is localised within the brain.

Brain Function and Lobes

Lobes are identifiable regions on the surface of the brain and so you can see that we might want to at least consider the possibility that functions may be localised to one of those four lobes. So, for example, vision is closely associated with the occipital lobe at the back of the brain and hearing and some forms of memory are associated with the temporal lobe on the side. You may want to look on the internet for an image showing these lobes and the major functions associated with them.

Neuron Groups

One of the most complete studies of the differences in neurones in different regions was undertaken by Korbinian Brodmann in the early 1900s. He produced a map which was based solely on the visual appearance of the neurones in different parts of the brain. He recognised that groups of similar-looking neurones were grouped together and he suggested that this may somehow relate to the function of that area.

Astonishingly, over 100 years later, now that we have been able to map brain function to cortical structures using a variety of techniques, it is clear that Brodmann’s postulation was correct. The correlation is accurate to such an extent that even now when neuroscientists are describing regions with a particular function they are often described by the numbering system that he used. Hence, area 17 in the occipital lobe is what we would now know as the primary visual cortex and, as the name suggests, is a critical area in enabling us to see.

Brain Functions Specific to Regions

The concept that we could allocate certain functions to specific regions was further refined by the work of Wilder Penfield in the 1950s. As a neurosurgeon, he was operating on epileptic patients. To try and locate the site in their brains where the seizures originated, he was mildly stimulating the brains of his awake patients; what he noticed, almost in passing, was that if he stimulated the same location he produced the same response or provoked the same memory. The outcome of his work was that he realised that, not only was there a region of the brain which, if stimulated, could produce movement, but that he could make a map of the parts of the body in this “motor region”.

Homunculus – Little Man

As can be seen from Penfield’s maps, each known as a homunculus, the size of the brain region controlling a body part is proportional to how much neural control there is over that structure rather than the physical size of the structure. Furthermore, there is an almost identical map for the sense of touch on the body surface. The resultant homunculus (little man) therefore has disproportionately large lips and hands. You may want to find an example of a homunculus on the web to help you understand this concept.

© University of Birmingham
This article is from the free online

Good Brain, Bad Brain: Basics

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education