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Meninges of the Brain and Spinal Cord

The term 'meninges' (singular: meninx) is derived from the Greek word for membrane. Meninges are connective tissue membranes that line the neurocranium and vertebral canal, and enclose the central nervous system (CNS-brain and spinal cord). It is made up of three layers, which from outwards to inwards (i.e. cranium/vertebrae to brain/spinal cord) are:

  • dura mater,
  • arachnoid mater, and
  • pia mater.

Hence the pia mater is the closest to the CNS structures, while the arachnoid and dura mater are farthest from the CNS.

The meningeal coverings provide protection to the brain and spinal cord, accompany blood vessels to and from the CNS tissues, and channel the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) around the surfaces of the brain and spinal cord.

The meninges also support these blood vessels and contains the CSF, within its subarachnoid space. These are the structures involved in meningitis – an inflammation of the meninges, which if severe, may become encephalitis – an inflammation of the brain.

Additionally, the dura mater is a thick tough fibrous and dense inelastic membrane which is conventionally described as consisting of two layers. The dura mater is considered the “hard meninges or pachymeninx”. The arachnoid mater is connected to the pia mater by many fine filamentous processes or webs (hence its name - “arachnoid”, meaning spiderlike).

The pia mater is a thin, highly vascular membrane investing the brain and spinal cord. The arachnoid and pia mater are considered the “soft meninges or leptomeninges (leptomenix)”. The region between the arachnoid and pia mater is the subarachnoid space which is filled with CSF.

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Meninges and superficial vessels of the brain.

Embryology

Fetal brain, pia mater - coronal section

Fetal brain, pia mater - coronal section

Development of the Cranial Meninges

Embryogenesis of the meninges varies across vertebrate species. However, the human cranial meningeal development is still a matter of great controversy.

To the extent of present knowledge, the meningeal coverings of the brain develop from both neural crest-derived cells and a mesenchymal layer of the neural tube, during the early embryonic development. These cells of the mesenchymal layer and neural crest form the primordium of the meninges called primary meninx. The primary meninx differentiates, during embryonic development, into two layers of cells: the pachymeninges – a thick layer and future dura mater, and the leptomeninges which develop into the arachnoid and the pia mater.

Development of the Spinal Meninges

Early in the 4th week of embryonic development, the mesenchyme surrounding the neural tube condenses to form a membrane called the primordial meninx or meninges. The external layer of this membrane thickens to form the dura mater. The internal layer, the pia-arachnoid which is composed of the pia mater and arachnoid mater (leptomeninges), is derived from neural crest cells.

Fluid-filled spaces appear within the leptomeninges that soon coalesce to form the subarachnoid space. The development of the pia and arachnoid mater from a single layer is indicated in the adult by arachnoid trabeculae – numerous delicate strands of connective tissue that pass between the pia and arachnoid mater. These arachnoid trabeculae are the webs or fine filamentous processes formed by the arachnoid mater after embryonic development. Cerebrospinal fluid begins to form during the 5th week of development.

Gross Anatomy

The gross features of the meninges will be discussed under each of its layers as follows:

Dura mater

The interior of the nuerocranium and vertebral canal are lined with a layer of the meninges called the dura mater – which is actually separated from the vertebral column by the epidural space, with only a “potential” epidural space between the cranium and this layer of the meninges.

Brain

This layer is conventionally described as consisting of an outer and an inner layer. The outer layer is often called the endosteal layer (periosteal dura), and the inner, the fibrous or meningeal layer (meningeal dura).

Dura mater - coronal section

Dura mater - coronal section

However, there is no need for these somewhat confusing alternatives; all are fibrous and all are part of the meninges. This two layer concept is to some extent, false because the outer layer is actually a form of periosteum which invests the surface of the cranium (just like periosteum invests the surface of any bone). The inner layer of the dura mater is very different; it consists of a dense, strong fibrous membrane, which is really the dura mater proper. The middle meningeal artery and middle meningeal veins lie between the periosteal dura and meningeal dura.

There are folds or reflections of the inner layer (meningeal layer) which project into the cranial cavity. One such fold, the tentorium cerebelli extends across the posterior cranial fossa; another forms the falx cerebri, lying in the midline between the two cerebral hemispheres. The falx cerebelli and diaphragma sellae are smaller derivatives of the inner dura layer; all four folds are described as follows:

  • Falx cerebri - This is the largest of all the folds. It is sickle-shaped and lies in the midline between the two cerebral hemispheres. Its front end is narrow and is attached to the internal frontal crest and crista galli. Posteriorly it is broad and blends with the upper surface of the tentorium cerebelli. In the upper fixed margin of the falx cerebri, runs the superior sagittal sinus, while in the lower free margin runs the inferior sagittal sinus. The straight sinus runs along its attachment to the tentorium cerebelli.
  • Falx cerebelli - This is a vertical infolding that lies inferior to the tentorium cerebelli, separating the cerebellar hemispheres. It is a small, sickle-shaped septum (fold). It attaches (anteriorly) to the occipital crest, and its posterior free margin contains the occipital sinus.
  • Tentorium cerebelli - This is the second largest septum or fold of the meningeal dura. It is crescent-shaped and forms a roof over the posterior cranial fossa. It covers the upper surface of the cerebellum and supports the occipital lobes of the cerebral hemispheres. On the anterior aspect of the tentorium cerebelli, there is a gap – the tentorial notch, for the passage of the midbrain. Three sinuses related to the tentorium cerebelli are the straight sinus (which runs along the attachment of the tentorium to the falx cerebelli), the superior petrosal sinus (which runs along the attachment of the tentorium to the temporal bone), and the transverse sinus (running along the attachment of the tentorium to the occipital bone).

Tentorium cerebelli - left lateral view

Tentorium cerebelli - left lateral view

  • Diaphragma sellae (Sellar diaphragm) - This is the smallest folding covering the pituitary gland and sella turcica. It is a circular-shaped fold that forms the roof of the sella turcica, and has a small opening in its centre that allows the passage of the stalk of the pituitary gland.

These four septa sent inwards, by the meningeal dura, divide the cranial cavity into freely communicating spaces lodging the subdivisions of the brain. They primarily function to restrict the rotatory displacement of the brain.

Spinal cord

Dura mater of spinal cord- ventral view

Dura mater of spinal cord- ventral view

On the spinal cord, the spinal dura mater or theca is a prolongation of the inner layer of the dura mater of the posterior cranial fossa. It extends downwards through the foramen magnum to the level of S2 vertebra, thus extending below the level of spinal cord termination L1/L2, and ensuring sufficient protection of the spinal cord by allowing space below the spinal cord level for CSF collection during a procedure like “Lumbar Puncture”.

Superiorly the spinal dura mater is attached firmly to the tectorial membrane and to the posterior longitudinal ligament on the body of the axis vertebra (second cervical vertebra – C2), but it lies freely in the spinal canal. It is separated from the spinal canal by a layer of fat in which lies the internal vertebral venous plexus. It is also pierced by anterior and posterior roots of the spinal nerves.

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Section of the spinal cord showing the spinal membranes and nerve roots.

Arachnoid mater and Subarachnoid space

This layer of the meninges consists of an impermeable delicate membrane that is reinforced by the inner layer of the dura mater. However, between this impermeable membrane part of the arachnoid mater and the inner layer of the dura mater (meningeal dura), there is a space called the subdural space – containing lymph (in the form of a thin film of tissue fluid).

Vessels and nerves pierce the dura and arachnoid mater both at the same place, and never run along between the two membranes.Lying beneath the arachnoid, is the subarachnoid space. Separating the arachnoid and pia mater in this space are web-like strands called arachnoid trabeculae which connect both mater.

Structures connecting the surface of the brain with foramina necessarily pass through the subarachnoid space. Thus all the cranial nerves and roots of the spinal nerves traverse the space, as well as all the arteries and veins of the brain and spinal cord. The space extends down to the termination of the spinal arachnoid and dura at the level of S2 vertebra.

Arachnoid mater - coronal section

Arachnoid mater - coronal section

In certain areas, the arachnoid herniates (protrudes) through little holes in the dura mater into the venous sinuses. Such herniae are the arachnoid villi; through their walls, the CSF “oozes” (i.e. is released) back into the blood stream. In adults, these arachnoid villi are aggregated into visible clumps called the arachnoid granulations (Pacchionian bodies).

The subarachnoid space provides a pathway for the circulation and absorption of the CSF after its release from the 4th ventricle. Resulting from the contours of the brain and cranium, spaces form in the subarachnoid. These spaces form the subarachnoid cisterns. The largest of these cisterns is the cerebellomedullary cistern (cisterna magna). Others are the pontine cistern, interpeduncular cistern and the chiasmatic cistern.

Arachnoid mater of spinal cord - ventral view

Arachnoid mater of spinal cord - ventral view

The spinal arachnoid mater shows similar arrangement and features to that of the cranial arachnoid mater. However, the arachnoid trabeculae are condensed into a thin posterior midline lamina that forms an incomplete posterior median septum.

The spinal subarachnoid space is relatively large, accommodating about half of the total volume of the CSF (75ml out of 150ml). It communicates through the foramen magnum with the subarachnoid space of the posterior cranial fossa. In the spinal canal, the space ends at the level of the S2 vertebrae.

Pia mater

Pia mater - coronal section

Pia mater - coronal section

This meningeal layer invests the brain and spinal cord as periosteum invests bone. It contains blood vessels, and invests the surface of the CNS to the depths of the deepest fissures and sulci, following the curvatures of the brain surfaces – gyri and sulci. It is prolonged out over the cranial nerves and spinal nerve roots to fuse with their epineurium, and it is invaginated into the substance of the brain by the entering cerebral arteries.

Pia mater of spinal cord - transverse section

Pia mater of spinal cord - transverse section

On the spinal cord, the pia mater, as in the cranium, invests the surface of the central nervous system. It clothes the spinal cord and enters to line the anterior median sulcus. It is projected below the apex of the conus medullaris, whence it extends as the filum terminale to perforate the spinal theca (spinal dura mater) at the level of S2 vertebra.

The pia mater projects laterally, on each side of the midline, to form the denticulate ligaments.

Histology

The meninges are essentially composed of a series of fibroblasts and/or arachnoid cells, as well as varying amounts of extracellular materials, fibres, and fluid-filled cisterns (openings or spaces).

Dura mater

Dura mater of spinal cord - transverse section

Dura mater of spinal cord - transverse section

The dura mater is a rigid but simple covering of the brain as well as an internal covering of the calvaria. It forms venous sinuses that drain blood and CSF.

The border layer of the dura mater contains electron-dense cytoplasm and it is also characterized by:

  • extracellular cisterns containing fuzzy amorphous materials,
  • devoid of connective tissue fibres,
  • the presence of a good number of cell junctions, and
  • lack of tight junctions.

As mentioned above, the dura mater is composed of greater (periosteal) and lesser (meningeal) laminae, which are formed mainly of collagen fibres that are aligned differently. A small amount of elongated, flattened fibrocytes are intermingled with large number of extracellular collagen fibrils.

Arachnoid mater

Arachnoid mater of spinal cord - transverse section

Arachnoid mater of spinal cord - transverse section

The arachnoid contains mechanical strong, flexible, and functional structures, having the following three distinct roles:

  • serve as a covering for the pulsatile brain,
  • a pathway of the CSF circulation, and
  • an anatomical structure for CSF absorption.

For these purposes, the arachnoid cells form numerous morphologically distinct cell junctions, intense cell to cell communications, pinocytotic activity, extracellular cisterns, and specialized segments such as arachnoid villi (arachnoid granulations).

The outer part of the arachnoid mater forms the arachnoid barrier layer, which is comprised of closely packed cells like those of an actual covering membrane. While the inner part of the arachnoid forms the arachnoid trabeculae which are steeped in the CSF of the subarachnoid space, to support the arachnoid barrier layer. Arachnoid barrier cells have a large, polygonal, and electron-lucent cytoplasm with an oval nucleus, showing a marked contrast to the long and flattened dural border cells.

The arachnoid barrier layer is composed of layer of cells with numerous cell junctions, and the presence of many tight junctions which serve as a barrier to the CSF.

Pia mater

Pia mater of spinal cord - transverse section

Pia mater of spinal cord - transverse section

This is a layer of cells with long, flattened processes forming the innermost part of the meninges. Pial cells show similarities with arachnoid trabecular cells and have close contact with their attenuated processes. They are composed of a smooth-surfaced, thin layer of cells joined by desmosomes and gap junctions, but no tight junctions are observed.

Neurovasculature

Arterial supply

The blood supply to the meninges generally concerns the blood supply to the outer layer of the dura mater (periosteal dura) rather than the inner layer of the inner layer of the dura (meningeal dura), arachnoid mater, or the pia mater. These two meningeal layers and the inner layer of the dura mater, require very little blood to derive nourishment. All the arteries and veins of the meninges lie between the two layers of the dura mater.

In the supratentorial part of the periosteal dura, the arterial supply is by the:

  • middle meningeal artery

Middle meningeal artery - right lateral view

Middle meningeal artery - right lateral view

In the anterior cranial fossa, the arterial supply includes:

  • the meningeal branches of the ophthalmic artery
  • the meningeal branches of the anterior ethmoidal artery
  • the meningeal branches of the posterior ethmoidal artery

Over the cavernous sinus, the periosteal dura is supplied by:

In the middle cranial fossa, it is supplied by:

  • the ascending pharyngeal artery
  • the anterior (frontal) and posterior (parietal) branches of the middle meningeal artery

The middle meningeal artery is a branch of the maxillary artery. It is the most clinically significant arterial supply of the meninges because of its location in the extradural space, and the proximity of its frontal (anterior) branch to the pterion (the point of the cranium where the parietal and temporal bones meet the greater wing of the sphenoid bone) of the skull, making it susceptable to damage in head injuries.

In addition, the frontal branch also lie over the precentral gyrus, and as a result, haemorrhage from it causes pressure on the motor area.

In the posterior cranial fossa, the cranial periosteal dura is supplied by:

  • occipital arteries
  • ascending pharyngeal arteries
  • meningeal branches of the vertebral artery

Posterior meningeal branch of vertebral artery- right lateral view

Posterior meningeal branch of vertebral artery- right lateral view

Like the cranial meninges, the pia mater, arachnoid mater and meningeal dura of the spinal meninges require very little nourishment from blood. Hence the spinal theca is supplied by:

  • meningeal branches of the vertebral artery

Venous Drainage

The venous return of the dura mater is by the middle meningeal veins which accompany the branches of the middle meningeal artery.

Innervation

The nerve supply of the dura mater is as described below.

In the supratentorial part, it is innervated by:

In the anterior cranial fossa, its nerve supply includes:

  • the ophthalmic division of the trigeminal nerve (nasociliary branch)
  • the anterior ethmoidal nerve
  • the posterior ethmoidal nerve

In the middle cranial fossa, the nerve supply includes:

In the posterior cranial fossa, it is supplied by:

  • 2nd and 3rd cervical branches of the C2 and C3 nerves
  • meningeal branches of the vagus (CN X) and hypoglossal (CN XII) nerves, that is the tenth and twelfth cranial nerves; with contributions from C1 and C2 – the first and second cervical nerves

Clinical Application

Lumbar Puncture

Knowledge of anatomy of the meninges is highly useful in this clinical procedure. The needle is usually inserted between the spines of L3 and L4 or L4 and L5 vertebrae when the patient's back is flexed. This procedure is usually performed to extract cerebrospinal fluid for clinical diagnosis. Since the spinal cord ends at the level of L1 vertebra, it is in no danger by the needle, which usually penetrates the dura and arachnoid mater to access the CSF at the level of the vertebral – between L3 and L4 or L4 and L5. Recall that the spinal dura and arachnoid mater extend to terminate at the level of S2 vertebra.

Spinal Anaesthesia

In this procedure, the anaesthetic solution is injected into the subarachnoid space (with the needle in a similar position to that used for lumbar puncture), so mixing with the CSF surrounding the nerve roots and percolating (filtering gradually) into them.

Epidural Anaesthesia

This is commonly used in child birth. The anaesthetic solution is injected into the epidural (extradural) space, without penetrating as far as the dura mater. In this way the solution can infiltrate through the meningeal sheaths containing the lumbar and sacral nerve roots. The approach is also similar to that for lumbar puncture.

Subdural Haematoma (SDH)

SDH, as illustrated in the diagram above, is a collection of blood (clotting blood) that forms in the subdural space. Usually resulting from tears in bridging veins which cross the subdural space, subdural hemorrhages may cause an increase inintracranial pressure (ICP), which can cause compression of and damage to delicate brain tissue. A severe SDH may lead to loss of consciousness (but very rare), and lucidness of a few hours. Treatment includes craniotomy and clot evacuation.

Epidural Haematoma (EDH)

This is also called extradural haematoma, and it is the accumulation of blood in the epidural space due to injury, for example from a road traffic accident or sports injury, involving the middle meningeal artery. Treatment may require decompression of the haematoma, usually by craniotomy to ease-out the pressure cause by the clothed blood on the brain.

Meningitis

This is also referred to as leptomeningitis, and it is an inflammation of the arachnoid and pia mater, and most often also involving the subarachnoid space. It is caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi infections, and may lead to coma and death in less than 24 hours. Long term effects of meningitis include deafness and blindness, which may be caused by the compression of cranial nerves and brain areas responsible for the sense of hearing and sight.

Meningioma

This is tumor arising from the meninges. It is mostly benign (meaning non-cancerous), but can also be malignant (cancerous). However, there are also atypical meningiomas, that is, meningiomas that neither can be categorized as benign nor malignant. Meningiomas occur in males at different age, but older woman are most susceptable.

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Show references

References:

  • R.M.H McMinn: Last's anatomy (Regional and Applied), 9th edition, Ana-Maria Dulea (2014), p. 558-568, 574-575.  
  • K.L Moore and T.V.N Persaud: The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 8th edition, Saunders (2007), p. 384.
  • H. Knipe and J. Maingard: Innervation of the meninges. (accessed 22/01/2015)
  • M. Elias: Neuroembryology. (accessed 22/01/2015).
  • M. Beatriz and S. Lopes: Meninges: Embryology. Brain Tumor & Neuro-Onc. (2009), p. 34-43.
  • T. Yamashima: Human Meninges: Anatomy and Its Role in Meningioma Pathogenesis. Brain Tumor & Neuro-Onc. (2009), p. 15-24.
  • T. Yamashima and R.L Friede: Light and Electron Microscopic Studies on the subdural space, the Subarachnoid space and the Arachnoid membrane. Neurol. Med. Chir. (1984), volume 24, p. 737-746.
  • S. Kavanagh and R. Henderson: Subdural Haematoma. (accessed 25/01/2015).
  • M. Wright and L. Knott: Extradural Haematoma. (accessed 25/01/2015).

Author and Layout:

  • Benjamin Aghoghovwia
  • Catarina Chaves

Illustrators:         

  • Fetal brain, pia mater - histological slide - Smart in Media
  • Dura mater (coronal section) - Paul Kim
  • Tentorium cerebelli (left lateral view) - Paul Kim
  • Dura mater of spinal cord (ventral view) - Rebecca Betts
  • Arachnoid mater (coronal section) - Paul Kim
  • Arachnoid mater of spinal cord (ventral view) - Rebecca Betts
  • Pia mater (coronal section) - Paul Kim
  • Pia mater of spinal cord (transverse section) - Rebecca Betts
  • Dura mater - histological slide - Smart in Media
  • Arachnoid mater - histological slide - Smart in Media
  • Pia mater - histological slide - Smart in Media
  • Middle meningeal artery (right lateral view) - Paul Kim
  • Posterior meningeal branch of vertebral artery (right lateral view) - Paul Kim
© Unless stated otherwise, all content, including illustrations are exclusive property of Kenhub GmbH, and are protected by German and international copyright laws. All rights reserved.

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