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Brain: Corticospinal tract
Deep dissection of brain-stem. Lateral view. ("pyramidal tract" visible in red, and "pyramidal decussation" labeled at lower right.)
Diagram of the principal fasciculi of the spinal cord.
Latin tractus corticospinalis
Gray's subject #185 759
NeuroNames ancil-373
MeSH Pyramidal+Tracts
NeuroLex ID birnlex_1464

The corticospinal or pyramidal tract is a collection of axons that travel between the cerebral cortex of the brain and the spinal cord.

The corticospinal tract mostly contains motor axons. It actually consists of two separate tracts in the spinal cord: the lateral corticospinal tract and the medial corticospinal tract. An understanding of these tracts leads to an understanding of why for the most part, one side of the body is controlled by the opposite side of the brain.

Also the corticobulbar tract is considered to be a pyramidal tract. The corticobulbar tract carries signals that control motor neurons located in cranial nerve brain nuclei rather than motor neurons located in the spinal cord.[1]

The neurons of the pyramidal tracts are pyramidal neurons, but that is not how the pyramidal tract got its name, as most of the pyramidal neurons send their axons elsewhere.[2] Instead, it got its name from the shape of the corticospinal axon tracts: when the pyramidal tract passes the medulla, it forms a dense bundle of nerve fibres that is shaped somewhat like a pyramid.[3]

The corticospinal tract is concerned specifically with discrete voluntary skilled movements, especially of the distal parts of the limbs. (Sometimes called "fractionated" movements)


The motor pathway

The corticospinal tract originates from pyramidal cells in layer V of the cerebral cortex. About half of its fibres arise from the primary motor cortex. Other contributions come from the supplementary motor area, premotor cortex, somatosensory cortex, parietal lobe, and cingulate gyrus. The average fibre diameter is in the region of 10μm; around 3% of fibres are extra-large (20μm) and arise from Betz cells, mostly in the leg area of the primary motor cortex.


Upper motor neurons

The motor neuron cell bodies in the motor cortex, together with their axons that travel down through the brain stem and spinal cord, are referred to as upper motor neurons.

Decussation and synapses

The neuronal cell bodies in the motor cortex send long axons to the motor cranial nerve nuclei mainly of the contralateral side of the midbrain (cortico-mesencephalic tract), pons (cortico-pontine tract), medulla oblongata (cortico-bulbar tract); the bulk of these fibers, however, extend all the way down to the spinal cord (corticospinal tract).

Whichever of these two tracts it travels in, a cortico-spinal axon will synapse with another neuron in the ventral horn. This ventral horn neuron is considered a second-order neuron in this pathway, but is not part of the corticospinal tract itself.

From cerebral to motor neurons

The motor axons move closer together as they travel down through the cerebral white matter, and form part of the posterior limb of the internal capsule.

The motor fibers continue down into the brainstem. The bundle of corticospinal axons is visible as two column-like structures ("pyramids") on the ventral surface of medulla oblongata - this is where the name pyramidal tract comes from.

After the decussation, the axons travel down the spinal cord as the lateral corticospinal tract. Fibers that do not cross over in the medulla oblongata travel down the separate anterior corticospinal tract, and most of them cross over to the contralateral side in the spinal cord, shortly before reaching the lower motor neurons.

Lower motor neurons

In the spinal cord, the axons of the upper motor neuron connect (most of them via interneurons, but to a lesser extent also via direct synapses) with the lower motor neurons, located in the ventral horn of the spinal cord.

In the brain stem, the lower motor neurons are located in the motor cranial nerve nuclei (oculomotor, trochlear, motor nucleus of the trigeminal nerve, abducens, facial, accessory, hypoglossal). The lower motor neuron axons leave the brain stem via motor cranial nerves and the spinal cord via anterior roots of the spinal nerves respectively, end-up at the neuromuscular plate and provide motor innervation for voluntary muscles.

Sensory pathways

Corticospinal tract damage

see upper motor neuron.

Extrapyramidal motor pathways

These are motor pathways that lie outside the corticospinal tract and are beyond voluntary control. Their main function is to support voluntary movement and help control posture and muscle tone. See extrapyramidal motor system.

Additional images


  1. ^ Chapter 9 of "Principles of Physiology" (3rd edition) by Robert M. Berne and Mathew N. Levy. Published by Mosby, Inc. (2000) ISBN:0-323-00813-5.
  2. ^ William H. Calvin and Derek Bickerton, Lingua ex Machina, glossary (MIT Press)
  3. ^ The Brain From Top To Bottom

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