Anatomical coordinate systems, Biology

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Brain anatomical coordinate systems are the first potential point of confusion, as there are different ones
due to the fact that research is conducted in different species where different conventions have been used. One of the coordinate systems is based on naming areas based on whether they are located closer to the head of the animal (rostral) vs. the tail of the animal (caudal) and, as the other axis, whether the area is more towards the back (dorsal) or the abdomen (ventral). In humans, there is no straight line from the forehead to the “tail” but rather the human brain has evolved in a curved structure. As a result of this, the coordinate system is also curved


Another coordinate system that is used in cognitive neuroscience has anterior-posterior as one and superior-inferior as the other axis. This coordinate system is not curved. In both coordinate systems, there is a third coordinate that runs from one ear to the other, and brain structures are further defined based on whether they are on the left or the right side of the midpoint between the ears. To define relative positions of brain structures along this dimension, the terms lateral (closer to the surface/ear) and medial (deeper in the brain/closer to midline) are used. To add to the confusion, there is yet another coordinate system in neuroimaging that communicates the directions along which the images slicing through the three-dimensional brain volume are oriented. Sagittal refers to images that are taken orthogonal to the left-right axis of the brain (i.e., looking at the brain from the side). Axial (or transverse) refers to images that are taken orthogonal to the superior-inferior axis and, finally, coronal implies that the image has been taken orthogonally to the anterior-posterior axis. The left and right side of the images are often marked due to there being two conventions: in the radiological convention, left side of the brain on axial / coronal images is located on the right side of the image and vice versa (i.e., as if you were looking at the image from the bottom rather than from the top of the head in axial images). In the neurological convention, the left side of the brain is on the left of the image, and the right side of the brain is on the right of the image.


Knowing these coordinate systems is useful when reading through cognitive neuroscience literature, and helps one to understand where things are located with respect to one another. In the following, an introduction to major divisions of brain anatomy is first described, followed by more detailed description of the structures and brain areas considered as most relevant for perceptual and cognitive functions.

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