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By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Describe the relationship of mental status exam results to cerebral functions
  • Explain the categorization of regions of the cortex based on anatomy and physiology
  • Differentiate between primary, association, and integration areas of the cerebral cortex
  • Provide examples of localization of function related to the cerebral cortex

In the clinical setting, the set of subtests known as the mental status exam helps us understand the relationship of the brain to the body. Ultimately, this is accomplished by assessing behavior. Tremors related to intentional movements, incoordination, or the neglect of one side of the body can be indicative of failures of the connections of the cerebrum either within the hemispheres, or from the cerebrum to other portions of the nervous system. There is no strict test for what the cerebrum does alone, but rather in what it does through its control of the rest of the CNS, the peripheral nervous system (PNS), and the musculature.

Sometimes eliciting a behavior is as simple as asking a question. Asking a patient to state his or her name is not only to verify that the file folder in a health care provider’s hands is the correct one, but also to be sure that the patient is aware, oriented, and capable of interacting with another person. If the answer to “What is your name?” is “Santa Claus,” the person may have a problem understanding reality. If the person just stares at the examiner with a confused look on their face, the person may have a problem understanding or producing speech.

Functions of the cerebral cortex

The cerebrum is the seat of many of the higher mental functions, such as memory and learning, language, and conscious perception, which are the subjects of subtests of the mental status exam. The cerebral cortex is the thin layer of gray matter on the outside of the cerebrum. It is approximately a millimeter thick in most regions and highly folded to fit within the limited space of the cranial vault. These higher functions are distributed across various regions of the cortex, and specific locations can be said to be responsible for particular functions. There is a limited set of regions, for example, that are involved in language function, and they can be subdivided on the basis of the particular part of language function that each governs.

The basis for parceling out areas of the cortex and attributing them to various functions has its root in pure anatomical underpinnings. The German neurologist and histologist Korbinian Brodmann, who made a careful study of the cytoarchitecture    of the cerebrum around the turn of the nineteenth century, described approximately 50 regions of the cortex that differed enough from each other to be considered separate areas ( [link] ). Brodmann made preparations of many different regions of the cerebral cortex to view with a microscope. He compared the size, shape, and number of neurons to find anatomical differences in the various parts of the cerebral cortex. Continued investigation into these anatomical areas over the subsequent 100 or more years has demonstrated a strong correlation between the structures and the functions attributed to those structures. For example, the first three areas in Brodmann’s list—which are in the postcentral gyrus—compose the primary somatosensory cortex. Within this area, finer separation can be made on the basis of the concept of the sensory homunculus, as well as the different submodalities of somatosensation such as touch, vibration, pain, temperature, or proprioception. Today, we more frequently refer to these regions by their function (i.e., primary sensory cortex) than by the number Brodmann assigned to them, but in some situations the use of Brodmann numbers persists.

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