The Important Role of the Limbic System: Structure, Function, & Everything you Need to Know
The brain is composed of many different parts that are constantly working together in unison to process information and maintain all of our voluntary and involuntary bodily functions every moment of the day. The limbic system is a vital component of the brain that is made up of several different structures that work together to manage emotional responses, behaviors, and memories. When the limbic system has sustained an acute trauma combined with a high stress-load it can sometimes get stuck in a negative feedback loop which results in a heightened stress response which often results in chronic fatigue, anxiety, and even feelings of depression.
Fortunately, through neuroplasticity, your brain is fully capable of rewiring itself and potentially resolving the maladaptive stress response that may have been brought on by past events. In other words, neuroplasticity, which is your brain’s natural ability to change its structure and function, may be able to help those that are dealing with a limbic system impairment. Through incorporating consistent brain training, many people are now finding that they can dramatically alter and improve their state of health and happiness.
What is the Limbic System?
The limbic system is a portion of the brain that is in charge of processing emotions, memories, learning, and behavioral responses such as the fight-or-flight response and reproductive instincts. The limbic system, when working in a healthy manner, helps us to feel safe and remain calm when no danger is posed to us. When the limbic system becomes impaired however, it can go into overdrive and create a cycle of negative feedback that results in the affected individual feeling stressed, anxious, and extremely fatigued. The responses that the limbic system initiates are appropriate at the time of whichever event triggered them, but the brain can then get stuck putting out obsolete messages that cause the body to overreact in the present.
Substructures and Functionalities of the Limbic System
Within the limbic system, there are a number of different components that work in harmony to make all of the processes it’s responsible for possible. The system is made up of 5 primary structures and then a few different substructures within some of those elements. Let’s go into further detail about the various aspects of the limbic system.
The limbic cortex, also known as the limbic lobe, is a c-shaped structure between the two hemispheres of the brain. Within this portion of the limbic system, there are two primary substructures:
Responsible for emotional and behavioral responses, the cingulate gyrus is a key element for making decisions and judgement calls and processing both other’s and one’s own emotions. The cingulate gyrus also plays an important role in autonomic motor function, or the functions that are involuntary (such as our heartbeat and breathing).
The parahippocampal gyrus encompasses the hippocampus, and it is an essential component for programming and recalling memories and spatial processing. This section of the brain is also closely connected to our sense of smell, which is the most significant sense when it comes to memory. To give you a better idea of how the parahippocampal gyrus functions, imagine a smell (maybe a dish or dessert someone from your childhood used to make) that you could smell now that would instantly transport you back to a specific moment in time many years ago. This is the parahippocampal gyrus at work!
The hippocampal formation plays an important part when it comes to memory, the capacity to maintain attention, and spatial awareness. This region also participates in the receival and signaling of sensory information to other areas of the brain.
When it comes to forming episodic memories (memories that can be clearly remembered and reiterated), the dentate gyrus plays a vital role. When information is sent to the dentate gyrus, it deals with separating this information so that details can be isolated within the memory.
The hippocampus also has much to do with memory and learning abilities. Long-term memories are primarily stored in the hippocampus, and this structure works to maintain the memories so that they are not forgotten with time. Spatial awareness and processing is also tied to the hippocampus, as well. When someone memorizes and recalls a speech, lyrics to a song, or directions to a destination off the top of their head, the hippocampus is what makes this possible.
The subicular complex, or subiculum, is comprised of smaller structures known as the parasubiculum, presubiculum, postsubiculum. Together, these parts are important for movement and direction, spatial processing, and memory formation.
If you have ever heard of the fight-or-flight response, then you are already aware of the primary function of the amygdala. If not, the fight-or-flight response is the instinct that kicks in when we are facing danger or an imminent threat. An example of the amygdala coming into play would be if someone was about to cross the street but then suddenly jumped back to the curb when they noticed a car speeding in their direction. This is a highly important survival reflex, and the amygdala is a primary driver for emotion-based reactions and behaviors.
The septal area is closely connected to the emotional responses that we have, and it also works to help us feel connected and bonded with others. The septal nuclei also send information to other portions of the limbic system and brain in general, such as the hippocampus.
Lastly, we have the hypothalamus, which is a structure that helps maintain incredibly important functions within the body. Some of the functions it regulates include the temperature of the body, the appetite, and overall homeostasis, which is the baseline level of balance and health.
Other brain structures that are also sometimes considered to be part of the limbic system are:
- The thalamus
- Basal ganglia
- The anterior cingulate cortex or ACC
- The subcortical nucleus
- Cingulate gyrus
Depending on who you ask, the limbic system may include more or less brain regions than those mentioned above. Part of the beauty of neuroscience is that new discoveries are being made every day. From how new neurons are actually formed (neurogenesis), to the vast reaching functions of the nervous system – our technology is enabling us to learn more and more about how these systems all work together.
Putting it all together
As you can now see, the limbic system is quite complex and is vital for executing so many daily functions on top of helping us preserve and recall our memories. Since the limbic system is so complex and intertwined in all bodily processes, when this system becomes impaired, it can lead to a host of different imbalances and health issues. On the other hand, the brain and limbic system in particular can be compared to being the “chief choreographer” of the body’s various processes, so when it’s working ideally, the body can work efficiently and is optimized for healing and recovery. Conditions such as depression and brain fog can in some cases be traced back to limbic system impairment, so working with the brain and its neuroplastic capabilities can help “reset” this system and put an end to the negative feedback loops that are occurring
re-origin® is a community that aims to help its members recover from health issues that can often be tied back to the limbic system. With re-origin, you can count on having a supportive team on your side that works to encourage you and provide you with guidance that is always backed by science. It’s important to have a clear understanding of how the mind and body is affected when the brain is not functioning to the best of its ability, and from there, you can take action and use neuroplasticity brain training to address these issues at the source.
What are the 3 main parts of the limbic system?
There are several structures that comprise the limbic system, but three main ones commonly referred to are: the amygdala, the thalamus, and the hippocampus.
What emotions do the limbic system control?
The limbic system is primarily responsible for survival instincts and emotions that follow such as fear, anxiety, rage, and reflexive tendencies. These emotions are largely driven by such neurochemicals as adrenaline, cortisol, and dopamine. Furthermore, the limbic system can become primed and lead to the formation of new memories and emotional associations.
What bodily functions does the limbic system help regulate?
Broadly speaking, the limbic system regulates the autonomic nervous system by telling it when to toggle between sympathetic and parasympathetic function based on the perception of different stimuli. Depending on which “mode” the nervous system is in, it will upregulate or downregulate functions such as:
- Heart rate
- Blood pressure
- Endocrine system
- Immune system
- Adrenal gland secretion
- olfactory system
- Sexual arousal
- and many other important bodily processes
What happens when the limbic system is damaged?
Because the limbic system is responsible for regulating so many bodily systems, An impaired limbic system may lead to a wide range of deregulation that can impact how a person feels and functions, both physically and emotionally.
Why is the limbic system important?
The limbic system is a part of the brain that functions like the “chief orchestrator” of hormonal, chemical, emotional, and behavioral responses. Without the limbic system, there would be no way to regulate all of the trillions of processes taking place in the human brain and body at any given time.