The basal ganglia (or basal nuclei) comprise multiple subcortical nuclei, of varied origin, in the brains of vertebrates, which are situated at the base of the forebrain. Basal ganglia are strongly interconnected with the cerebral cortex, thalamus, and brainstem, as well as several other brain areas. The basal ganglia are associated with a variety of functions including: control of voluntary motor movements, procedural learning, routine behaviors or “habits” such as bruxism, eye movements,cognition and emotion.
Currently, popular theories implicate the basal ganglia primarily in action selection; that is, it helps determine the decision of which of several possible behaviors to execute at any given time. In more specific terms, the basal ganglia’s primary function is likely to control and regulate activities of the motor and premotor cortical areas so that voluntary movements can be performed smoothly. Experimental studies show that the basal ganglia exert an inhibitory influence on a number of motor systems, and that a release of this inhibition permits a motor system to become active. The “behavior switching” that takes place within the basal ganglia is influenced by signals from many parts of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, which plays a key role in executive functions.
The main components of the basal ganglia are the striatum (caudate nucleus and putamen), the globus pallidus, thesubstantia nigra, the nucleus accumbens, and the subthalamic nucleus. Each of these areas has a complex internal anatomical and neurochemical organization. The largest component, the striatum, receives input from many brain areas beyond the basal ganglia, but only sends output to other components of the basal ganglia. The pallidum receives input from the striatum, and sends inhibitory output to a number of motor-related areas. The substantia nigra is the source of the striatal input of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which plays an important role in basal ganglia function. The subthalamic nucleus receives input mainly from the striatum and cerebral cortex, and projects to the globus pallidus.
The importance of these subcortical nuclei for normal brain function and behavior is emphasized by the numerous and diverse neurological conditions associated with basal ganglia dysfunction, which include: disorders of behavior control such as Tourette syndrome, hemiballismus, and obsessive–compulsive disorder; dystonia; psychostimulant addiction; andmovement disorders, the most notable of which are Parkinson’s disease, which involves degeneration of the dopamine-producing cells in the substantia nigra pars compacta, and Huntington’s disease, which primarily involves damage to the striatum.
The basal ganglia have a limbic sector whose components are assigned distinct names: the nucleus accumbens, ventral pallidum, and ventral tegmental area (VTA). There is considerable evidence that this limbic part plays a central role in reward learning, particularly a pathway from the VTA to the nucleus accumbens that uses the neurotransmitter dopamine. A number of highly addictive drugs, including cocaine, amphetamine, and nicotine, are thought to work by increasing the efficacy of this dopamine signal. There is also evidence implicating overactivity of the VTA dopaminergic projection in schizophrenia.