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The 12 Cranial Nerves

Introduction

There are twelve Cranial Nerves that supply the head, neck and internal organs. Here you can find a structured list of the nerves in numerical order, which includes their position, exit from the skull, what each nerve supplies and whether it is a motor or sensory nerve.

Recommended video: Cranial nerves
Overview of the 12 cranial nerves.

Cranial Nerve I

The olfactory nerve stems from the left and right olfactory bulbs, exits the skull through the cribriform plate and terminates in the roof of the nasal cavity. This nerve governs the olfactory nerve fibers which register smell.

Olfactory nerve - caudal view

Olfactory nerve - caudal view

Cranial Nerve II

The optic nerve stems on the left and right side from the optic chiasm, exits the skull through the optic canal and terminates in the eye. This nerve governs the ocular and sensory functions.

Optic nerve - lateral-left view

Optic nerve - lateral-left view

Cranial Nerve III

The oculomotor nerve stems from the medial superior margin of the left and right side of the pons, exits the skull through the superior orbital fissure and terminates in the muscles of the eye: ciliary, sphincter pupillae and all the external eye muscles except: superior oblique and lateral rectus. This nerve motorically innervates the previously mentioned eye muscles and allows the eye to move within the orbit.

Oculomotor nerve - lateral-left view

Oculomotor nerve - lateral-left view

Cranial Nerve IV

The trochlear nerve stems from the lateral superior margin of the left and right side of the pons, exits the skull through the superior orbital fissure and terminates in the superior oblique eye muscle. This nerve motorically governs the abduction, depression and internal rotation of the eye.

Trochlear nerve - cranial view

Trochlear nerve - cranial view

Cranial Nerve V

The trigeminal nerve stems from the lateral superior margin of the left and right side of the pons, this nerve branches into three:

These branches exit the skull through the superior orbital fissure (V/I), the foramen rotundum (V/II) and the foramen ovale (V/III). This nerve governs the sensory innervation of the face, sinuses and teeth.

Trigeminal nerve - lateral-left view

Trigeminal nerve - lateral-left view

Cranial Nerve VI

The abducent nerve stems from the medial inferior margin of the left and right side of the pons and the left and right pyramids. This nerve exits the skull via the superior orbital fissure and innervates the lateral rectus muscle of the eye, which retracts the eye within the orbit.

Abducens nerve - lateral-left view

Abducens nerve - lateral-left view

Cranial Nerve VII

The facial nerve stems from the lateral inferior margin of the left and right side of the pons and the left and right olives and exits the skull through the Internal acoustic meatus. It supplies the muscles of the face with motoric fibers and taste sensation to the anterior two thirds of the tongue.

Facial nerve - lateral-left view

Facial nerve - lateral-left view

Cranial Nerve VIII

The vestibulocochlear nerve stems from the lateral inferior margin of the left and right side of the pons and the cerebellum, and exits the skull via the internal acoustic meatus. This single nerve contains both vestibular and cochlear fibers. The cochlear fibers terminate in the cochlea and the vestibular fibers terminate in the ampullae of the vestibulum. They supply sensory innervation to the inner ear.

Recommended video: Vestibulocochlear nerve
Anatomy, course and branches of the vestibulocochlear nerve.

Cranial Nerve IX

The glossopharyngeal nerve stems from between the olives and the cerebellum and exits the skull via the jugular foramen. It provides: 

Glossopharyngeal nerve - lateral-left view

Glossopharyngeal nerve - lateral-left view

Cranial Nerve X

The vagus nerve stems from between the olives and the cerebellum, and exits the skull via the jugular foramen. It motorically innervates the: 

Vagus nerve - lateral-left view

Vagus nerve - lateral-left view

It provides sensation to the:

  • heart
  • lungs
  • trachea
  • bronchi
  • larynx
  • pharynx
  • gastrointestinal tract
  • external ear

Cranial Nerve XI

The accessory nerve stems from between the cuneate fasciculus and lateral funiculus and exits the skull via the jugular foramen. This nerve motorically innervates the sternocleidomastoid and trapezius muscles.

Accessory nerve - ventral view

Accessory nerve - ventral view

Cranial Nerve XII

The hypoglossal nerve stems from between the gracile and cuneate fasciculus, and exits the skull via the hypoglossal canal. It motorically innervates the muscles of the tongue, except the palatoglossus, which is innervated by the vagus nerve (CN X). It also gives C1-3 fibers to the strap muscles (infrahyoid muscles).

Hypoglossal nerve - lateral-left view

Hypoglossal nerve - lateral-left view

Summary

The easiest way to remember all the 12 cranial nerves involves the use of mnemonics, such as this one: 

'Ooh, ooh, ooh ttouch and feel very good velvet. Such heaven!'

  • olfactory
  • optic
  • occulomotor
  • trochlear
  • trigeminal
  • abducens
  • facial
  • vestibulocochlear
  • glossopharyngeal
  • vagus
  • accessory
  • hypoglossal
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Show references

Reference:

  • Frank H. Netter: Atlas of Human Anatomy, 4th Edition, Saunders, 2006, Plates 12 and 13.

Author:

  • Dr. Alexandra Sierosławska

Illustrators:

  • Olfactory nerve - caudal view - Paul Kim
  • Optic nerve - lateral-left view - Paul Kim
  • Oculomotor nerve - lateral-left view - Paul Kim
  • Trochlear nerve - cranial view - Yousun Koh
  • Trigeminal nerve - lateral-left view - Paul Kim
  • Abducens nerve - lateral-left view - Paul Kim
  • Facial nerve - lateral-left view - Paul Kim
  • Glossopharyngeal nerve - lateral-left view - Paul Kim
  • Vagus nerve - lateral-left view - Paul Kim
  • Accessory nerve - ventral view - Paul Kim
  • Hypoglossal nerve - lateral-left view - Paul Kim
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