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Extrapyramidal System

A collection of nerve fibres connecting two masses of grey matter within the central nervous system is referred to as a tract, system or pathway. They are often referred to as fasciculi (bundles) or lemnisci (ribbons).

The extrapyramidal pathway or system is an important part of the motor system of the body and can also be described as the descending motor pathway, whose fibres pass through the tegmentum rather than the medullary pyramid. The extrapyramidal pathway is actively involved in the initiation and selective activation of movements, along with their coordination.

Key facts about the extrapyramidal system

Rubrospinal tracts

Tectospinal tracts

Reticulospinal tracts

Vestibulospinal tracts

Functions Motor modulation, reflex postural movements, pain perception
Clinical relations Dyskinesia, Parkinson's disease, non-spastic cerebral palsy, Huntington's disease

Major contribution in the extrapyramidal motor system are the nuclei of the basal ganglia. Other structures which are involved include substantia nigra, red nucleus, subthalamic nucleus, mesencephalic reticular formation and the cerebellum. The extrapyramidal system is also often described as the motor-modulation system.

The term “extrapyramidal” is to distinguish between the effects of basal ganglia diseases and those of damage to the “pyramidal” system, even though there is an intertwine of a functional relationship between the two systems. Extrapyramidal system is polysynaptic in nature with many synapses within the brainstem.


Most of the descending pathways running from the cerebrum, cerebellum and brainstem towards the spinal cord, without coursing through the pyramids of the medulla, are considered part of the extrapyramidal system. Such tracts include:

  • Parts of the rubrospinal tracts
  • Tectospinal tracts
  • Reticulospinal tracts (lateral and medial)
  • Lateral and medial vestibulospinal tracts

Rubrospinal tracts

Fibres originating from the red nucleus (which lies in the upper part of the midbrain) course to the spinal cord, as rubrospinal tracts, but decussate to the opposite side in the lower part of the tegmentum of the midbrain. Such crossing fibres constitute what is referred to as the anterior tegmental decussation.

The extrapyramidal part of the rubrospinal tracts descend through the pons and medulla to enter the lateral funiculus of the spinal cord, where they terminate by lying immediately anterior to the lateral corticospinal tract (pyramidal tract).

Tectospinal tracts

Another collection of extrapyramidal tracts originates from the superior colliculus. These tracts are referred to as the tectospinal tracts and cross in the posterior tegmental decussation of the midbrain. Fibres of the tract synapse with motor neurons of the cervical muscles and mediate reflex postural movements. They follow the same course of the rubrospinal tracts by passing through the pons and medulla but terminate in the anterior funiculus of the spinal cord.

Reticulospinal tracts

The lateral reticulospinal tracts, which originate in the ventrolateral part of the reticular formation of the pons, cross to the opposite side in the medulla and run inferiorly in the lateral funiculus of the spinal cord. This pathway is associated with motor functions and in the control of pain perception.

In the medial parts of the reticular formations of the pons and medulla, arise the medial reticulospinal tracts (anterior pontoreticulospinal tract). Pontine fibres of these tracts travel in the anterior funiculus and are mainly uncrossed. Medullary fibres travel in the anterior and lateral funiculus as crossed and uncrossed. This tract is mainly concerned with posture.

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Vestibulospinal tracts

The medial and lateral vestibulospinal tracts originate in the medial vestibular and lateral vestibular nucleus respectively. The lateral vestibulospinal tracts, are particularly important for the balancing of movements. They lie in relation to the ventral grey column of the spinal cord in the anterior funiculus, where they terminate without crossing as they course through the medulla.

On the other hand, most of the fibres of the medial vestibulospinal tract decussate as the tracts descend through the medulla to terminate in the anterior funiculus within the cervical region of the spinal cord. Thier axons inhibit motor neurons of neck axial muscles.

Clinical relevance

Damage to the extrapyramidal system leads to different forms of movement and cognitive disorders. The majority of such movement disorders are classically described as dyskinesia. Different types of dyskinesia include myoclonus, tics, chorea, athetosis and tremors. Injury to the pyramidal system induces paralysis, whereas extrapyramidal tract disorders result in involuntary movements, muscle rigidity and immobility without paralysis. In some cases, both pyramidal and extrapyramidal systems are affected, such as spastic-athetoid cerebral palsy. Disorders which are seen with many types of extrapyramidal disease are:

  • Parkinson’s disease, which is linked to dopamine deficiency in the striatum of basal ganglia. It is characterised by rigidity (increased muscle tone), bradykinesia (slowing of movements) and tremors.
  • Non-spastic cerebral palsy, which could be dyskinetic or ataxic. It is caused by damage to the nerve cells outside the pyramidal tracts in the basal ganglia or in the cerebellum.
  • Huntington’s disease, which is a choreiform disorder. It is caused by the degenerative process in the striatum.

Extrapyramidal symptoms including acute and tardive dyskinesias and dystonic reactions are sometimes serious side effects of antipsychotic and other drugs.

Extrapyramidal System - want to learn more about it?

Our engaging videos, interactive quizzes, in-depth articles and HD atlas are here to get you top results faster.

Sign up for your free Kenhub account today and join over 1,102,418 successful anatomy students.

“I would honestly say that Kenhub cut my study time in half.” – Read more. Kim Bengochea Kim Bengochea, Regis University, Denver

Show references


  • Standring S. (2008) Gray’s Anatomy: The Anatomical Basis of Clinical Practice. Churchill Livingstone Elsevier 40th Edition, p. 228 – 291.
  • H. P Academy: The human brain. HumanPhysiology.Academy 2014-2015. (accessed 12/12/2015).
  • Singh: Textbook of Neuroanatomy, 2nd edition, (2010) p. 60 – 65.
  • P. Gupta: Extrapyramidal tracts and disorders (accessed 12/12/2015).
  • K. T. Patton: Anatomy and Physiology, 9th edition (2013), p. 467 – 469.

Author, Review and Layout:

  • Benjamin Aghoghovwia
  • Uruj Zehra
  • Catarina Chaves


  • Gray matter - ventral view - Rebecca Betts
  • Midbrain - medial view - Paul Kim
  • Pons - lateral left view - Paul Kim
  • Medial vestibular nucleus - ventral view - Paul Kim
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