Neuroscientists Have Accidentally Discovered a Whole New Role For The Cerebellum

One of the best-known regions of the brain, the cerebellum accounts for just 10 percent of the organ’s total volume, but contains more than 50 percent of its neurons.

Despite all that processing power, it’s been assumed that the cerebellum functions largely outside the realm of conscious awareness, instead coordinating physical activities like standing and breathing. But now neuroscientists have discovered that it plays an important role in the reward response – one of the main drives that motivate and shape human behaviour.

Not only does this open up new research possibilities for the little region that has for centuries been primarily linked motor skills and sensory input, but it suggests that the neurons that make up much of the cerebellum – called granule cells – are functioning in ways we never anticipated.

“Given what a large fraction of neurons reside in the cerebellum, there’s been relatively little progress made in integrating the cerebellum into the bigger picture of how the brain is solving tasks, and a large part of that disconnect has been this assumption that the cerebellum can only be involved in motor tasks,” says one of the team, Mark Wagner, from Stanford University.

“I hope that this allows us to unify it with studies of more popular brain regions like the cerebral cortex, and we can put them together.”

Tucked into the back of the brain, the cerebellum maintains a massive amount of connections with the motor cortex – a region of the cerebral cortex in the brain’s frontal lobe that’s involved in the planning, control, and execution of voluntary movements.

While there have been hints of the cerebellum’s connection to cognitive processes such as attention and language function, previous research on granule cells has only ever linked them to basic sensory and motor functions. 

And that makes sense when you see the effects on someone with a damaged cerebellum – they’ll often experience difficulties in maintaining balance and equilibrium, performing fine motor skills such as reaching and grasping, and keeping upright.


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