Neuroanatomy, like other aspects of anatomy, uses specific terminology to describe anatomical structures. This terminology helps ensure that a structure is described accurately, with minimal ambiguity. Terms also help ensure that structures are described consistently, depending on their structure or function. Terms are often derived from Latin and Greek, and like other areas of anatomy are generally standardised based on internationally accepted lexicons such as Terminologia Anatomica.
To help with consistency, humans and other species are assumed when described to be in standard anatomical position, with the body standing erect and facing observer, arms at sides, palms forward.
Anatomical terms of location depend on the location and species that is being described.
To understand the terms used for anatomical localisation, consider an animal with a straight CNS, such as a fish or lizard. In such animals the terms "rostral", "caudal", "ventral" and "dorsal" mean respectively towards the rostrum, towards the tail, towards the belly and towards the back. For a full discussion of those terms, see anatomical terms of location.
For many purposes of anatomical description, positions and directions are relative to the standard anatomical planes and axes. Such reference to the anatomical planes and axes is called the stereotactic approach.
Standard terms used throughout anatomy include anterior / posterior for the front and back of a structure, superior / inferior for above and below, medial / lateral for structures close to and away from the midline respectively, and proximal / distal for structures close to and far away from a set point.
Some terms are used more commonly in neuroanatomy, particularly:
Standard anatomical planes and anatomical axes are used to describe structures in animals. In humans and most other primates the axis of the central nervous system is not straight, but bent. This means that there are certain major differences that reflect the distortion of the brains of the Hominidae. For example, to describe the human brain, "rostral" still means "towards the face", or at any rate, the interior of the cranial cavity just behind the face. However, in the brain "caudal" means not "towards the tail", but "towards the back of the cranial cavity". Alternative terms for this rostro-caudal axis of the brain include medial or antero-posterior axis.
"Dorsal" means "in the direction away from the spinal cord i.e. in the direction of the roof of the cranial cavity". "Ventral" means downwards towards floor of the cranial cavity and thence to the body. They lie on the superior-inferior or Dorsoventral axis. The third axis passes through the ears, and is called the left-right, or lateral axis.
These three axes of the human brain match the three planes within which they lie, even though the terms for the planes have not been changed from the terms for the bodily planes. The most commonly used reference planes are:
Specific terms are used for peripheral nerves that originate from, or arrive at, a specific point.
An efferent nerve fiber is one that arrives at the present point. For example, a cortical efferent is a fibre coming from somewhere else, and arriving to the cortex. Note that that is the opposite of the direction in which the nerve fibre conducts signals.
Specific terms are also used to describe the route of a nerve or nerve fibre:
A chiasm (from Greek, meaning 'a crossing') is used to describe an X-shaped crossing of nerve fibres between the cerebral hemispheres. The major example in the human brain is the Optic chiasm. The main difference between such a chiasm and a decussation is that not all nerve fibres entering the chiasm cross over.
A commissure is a group of nerve fibres crossing the sagittal plane mainly parallel to the lateral axis and therefore without forming a cross-shape. For example, nerve fibre tracts that cross between the two cerebral hemispheres, are the anterior commissure, posterior commissure, corpus callosum, hippocampal commissure, and habenular commissure. The spinal cord contains a commissure as well: the anterior white commissure.
A decussation is where nerve fibers cross from one side of the brain to the other.
The optic chiasm in the human brain, showing pathways conveying information from the visual field of each eye to the contralateral visual cortex
Specific terms are used to represent the gross anatomy of the brain:
A gyrus is an outward folding of the brain, for example the precentral gyrus. A sulcus is an inward fold, or valley in the brain's surface - for example the central sulcus. Additional terms used to describe these may include:
A fissure is used to describe: