The cerebellum (“little brain”) is a structure that is located at the back of the brain, underlying the occipital and temporal lobes of the cerebral cortex (Figure 5.1). Although the cerebellum accounts for approximately 10% of the brain’s volume, it contains over 50% of the total number of neurons in the brain. Historically, the cerebellum has been considered a motor structure, because cerebellar damage leads to impairments in motor control and posture and because the majority of the cerebellum’s outputs are to parts of the motor system. Motor commands are not initiated in the cerebellum; rather, the cerebellum modifies the motor commands of the descending pathways to make movements more adaptive and accurate. The cerebellum is involved in the following functions:
Maintenance of balance and posture. The cerebellum is important for making postural adjustments in order to maintain balance. Through its input from vestibular receptors and proprioceptors, it modulates commands to motor neurons to compensate for shifts in body position or changes in load upon muscles. Patients with cerebellar damage suffer from balance disorders, and they often develop stereotyped postural strategies to compensate for this problem (e.g., a wide-based stance).
Coordination of voluntary movements. Most movements are composed of a number of different muscle groups acting together in a temporally coordinated fashion. One major function of the cerebellum is to coordinate the timing and force of these different muscle groups to produce fluid limb or body movements.
Motor learning. The cerebellum is important for motor learning. The cerebellum plays a major role in adapting and fine-tuning motor programs to make accurate movements through a trial-and-error process (e.g., learning to hit a baseball).
Cognitive functions. Although the cerebellum is most understood in terms of its contributions to motor control, it is also involved in certain cognitive functions, such as language. Thus, like the basal ganglia, the cerebellum is historically considered as part of the motor system, but its functions extend beyond motor control in ways that are not yet well understood.