Nerves emerge as spinal nerves from segments of the spinal cord. Cranial nerves emerge directly and without “detour” via the spinal cord from the bony skull because they supply cranial structures or fulfil specific functions. As the 31 pairs of spinal nerves, they are considered components of the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The cranial nerves I and II are exceptions since they do not emerge from the brain and therefore are not considered peripheral nerves. During medical studies, cranial nerves are an essential element of the subjects of the brain and the nervous system. In the following, you will find a concise overview of the classification, the functions and the course of the 12 cranial nerves.
Cranial Nerves Labeled Diagram

Image: “Cranial Nerves” by BruceBlaus. License: CC BY 3.0

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Classification of Cranial Nerves

Every cranial nerve (CN) is assigned a Roman numeral as a name. The numbering is based on the order in which they emerge from the brain, from ventral to dorsal. The name indicates the function or the course.

A mnemonic to remember the names of the cranial nerves: Ooh, ooh, ooh to touch and feel very good velvet. Such heaven!

How do the cranial nerves differ in terms of fibres?

The 12 pairs of cranial nerves originate from the nose (CN I), the eyes (CN II), the inner ear (CN VIII), the brainstem (CN III-XII) and the spinal cord (part of XI).

Cranial nerves have sensory (afferent) and motor (efferent) functions. Only sensory axons contain two cranial nerves (CN I and CN II), which are in the proper sense not nerves, but fibre tracts. The olfactory nerve emerges from eversions of the cerebrum and the optic nerve emerges from the diencephalon.

All the other cranial nerves originate from the brainstem nuclei (the hypoglossal nerve is located at the border of the spinal cord) and include sensory axons, as well as motor axons. The oculomotor nerve (III) and the trochlear nerve (IV) emerge from the mesencephalon, the cranial nerves V to XII originate from the pons (bridge) and the medulla oblongata (extended spinal cord).

The cranial nerves III, IV, VI, XI and XII are mainly motor and provide innervation of the skeletal muscles. However, the cranial nerves I and II mentioned before, and the vestibulocochlear nerve, are purely sensory, but there are also cranial nerves (CN V, VII, IX, X) that are both sensory and motor.

For this reason, you should memorise the following sentence: (s= sensory, m= motor, b= both)

Some students make money, but my brother says Boris Becker makes more.

The oculomotor nerve, the facial nerve, the glossopharyngeal nerve and the vagus nerve also include somatic and autonomic axons. The somatic part ensures the supply of the skeletal muscles and the autonomic part belonging to the parasympathetic nervous system innervates the glands, the smooth muscles and the cardiac muscle.

The Cranial Nerves

Image: “The Cranial Nerves” by philschatz. License: CC BY 4.0

Cranial nerve I: Olfactory Nerve

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olfactory nerve

Image: “Head Anatomy with Olfactory Nerve” by Patrick J. Lynch. License: CC BY 2.5

The olfactory nerve is part of the olfactory pathway and is a purely sensory nerve. The olfactory mucosa, with its olfactory cells, is located in the superior nasal meatus (meatus nasi superius). The olfactory cells are nerve cells of which the unmyelinated axons are bundled and emerge through the openings of the cribriform plate (lamina cribrosa, part of the ethmoid bone) and the dura mater located on top into the anterior cranial fossa. The approximately 40 bundles make up the right and the left olfactory nerve.

In olfactory nerves end in the brain in two paired masses of grey matter, the olfactory bulb, where they are switched to the second neuron. The axon terminals (synaptic knobs) of the olfactory receptors (olfactory cells) compose the next neurons on the olfactory pathway in the respective bulbus synapses with dendrites and soma.

These axons emerging from the neurons of the olfactory bulb are located in the olfactory tract, which leads to the olfactory cortex (rhinencephalon/smell brain), where the olfactory sensation is perceived and then emotionally linked.   

Function of the olfactory nerve

  • Smelling

Cranial nerve II: Optic Nerve

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The optic nerve is the visual nerve (= optikos= vision) and it is purely sensory. For the most part, it is encased in the three meninges. From the retina of the eye, the visual impulses are transmitted to the diencephalon via the optic nerve. Fibres pass from the visual centre of the thalamus to the occipital visual cortex, where the image of the event is created.

Optic nerve vs optic tract

Image: “Optic Nerve vs Optic Tract” by OpenStax College. License: CC BY 3.0

However, both the optic nerves do not run separately to their ipsilateral part of the thalamus. In the part of the sphenoid bone, the sella turcica (Turkish Chair) they join into the optic decussation (chiasma opticum). There, the fibres of both the optic nerves mix until new fibre tracts form and continue to the diencephalon. As of the chiasma, the nerve bundles are not called nerves any longer, but optic tract.

The transmission of the field of vision leads to the mixture of the fibres. In the optic tract, the part of the optic nerve transmitting the lateral (temporary) field of vision proceeds on the same side. In the optic decussation, the medial parts of the field of vision are switched to the contralateral side and cross to the opposite side.

Function of the Optic Nerve

  • Seeing

Cranial Nerve III: Oculomotor Nerve

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The oculomotor nerve (oculus= eye) is a mixed cranial nerve, which is mainly motor, while the motor nucleus is located in the ventral mesencephalon. It innervates most of the outer eye muscles and passes from the midbrain (mesencephalon) to the bony eye-socket (orbit).

It extends ventrally and divides into a superior and an inferior branch. The rectus superior muscle (one of the outer eye muscles) and the levator palpebrae superioris muscle (muscle of the upper eyelid), are innervated by the axons of the upper eyelid. The rectus medialis muscle, the rectus inferior muscle and the obliquus inferior muscle, which are all outer eye muscles, are supplied by the axons of the inferior branch.

Function of the Motor Axons

  • Movement of the upper eyelid and the eye

The oculomotor nerve serves the voluntary motor function, but it also contains parasympathetic fibres.  

The inferior branch serves the parasympathetic innervation of the inner eye muscles and contains the ciliary muscle and the iris sphincter muscle. Parasympathetic impulses, reaching the ciliary ganglion, originate from the oculomotor nucleus in the mesencephalon, which is the “circuit centre” of the autonomous nerve system.

Function of the Parasympathetic Axons

Parasympathetic axons extend from the ciliary ganglion to the ciliary muscle, which is responsible for the

  • Accommodation (adaption to the distance of an object).

Further parasympathetic fibres serve:

  • The stimulation of the iris sphincter muscle (constriction of the pupil in bright light) and
  • The stimulation of the iris dilator muscle (dilatation of the pupil).

Function of the Sensory Axons

  • Proprioception (part of self-perception)

The sensory part consists of afferent neurons of the proprioceptors of the outer eye muscles towards the mesencephalon. These axons bring together information of non-visual perception of body movement and position in space, as well as the location and position of single body parts to each other.

Cranial Nerve IV: Trochlear Nerve

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Trochlear nerve

Image: “Trochlear Nerve” by Btarski. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The trochlear nerve is the smallest of the 12 cranial nerves and the only nerve exiting the dorsal aspect of the brainstem with mostly motor axons. Beneath the tectum of mesencephalon (quadrigeminal plate), the nerve exits the midbrain (mesencephalon) and, as the olfactory nerve, it passes through the wall of the cavernous sinus.

Function of the trochlear nerve

Somatomotor functions:

  • Eye movement, innervation of the obliquus superior muscle

Sensory functions:

  • Proprioception

Cranial Nerve V: Trigeminal Nerve

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The trigeminal nerve is a mixed cranial nerve with mainly sensory parts and it is regarded as the largest cranial nerve. It runs from the pons to the petrous portion (Pars petrosa) of the temporal bone (Os temporale), where it converges the trigeminal ganglion. As the name suggests, the trigeminal nerve has three major branches consisting of nerve cell clusters.

  • Ophthalmic nerve
  • Maxillary nerve
  • Mandibular nerve

The ophthalmic nerve passes through the superior orbital fissure and is the smallest branch. The maxillary nerve is located between the ophthalmic nerve and the mandibular nerve. It is medium-sized and passes through the foramen rotundum. The mandibular nerve passes through the oval foramen and is the largest of the three trigeminal branches.

Function of the trigeminal nerve

The transmission of impulses for touch, pain, temperature, proprioception and the somatomotor function with mandibular movement, are the sensory functions of the trigeminal nerve.

The ophthalmic nerve (V1) has mainly sensory fibres and has the following function:

  • Sensory innervation of the skin of the forehead, the eyes, the nose and the nasal mucosa
  • Innervation of the iris, the cornea, the conjunctiva and the lacrimal gland
  • Supply of the skin of the forehead and checking for pressure pain at the exit point of the supraorbital foramen

The maxillary nerve (V2) innervates the facial skin with sensory fibres and a parasympathetic part and has the following tasks:

  • Supply of the lower eyelid and the upper lip
  • Supply of teeth, gums of the upper jaw and the palate mucosa (incl. uvula) and tonsils
  • Supply of the lacrimal gland by the parasympathetic part

The mandibular nerve contains besides the sensory fibres also motor fibres of the trigeminal nerve. It has the following tasks:

  • Innervation of all the muscles of mastication (e.g. masseter muscle) and the suprahyoid muscles by motor fibres
  • Supply of the teeth, the gums of the lower jaw, the buccal mucosa, the dorsum of tongue, as well as the external acoustic meatus, including the eardrum, by sensory fibres

Cranial Nerve VI: Abducent Nerve

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The abducent nerve arises from the nucleus of the pons (bridge) and is one of the mixed cranial nerves with mainly motor fibres. From the nucleus, the axons emerge to the rectus lateralis muscle (outer eye muscle), pass through the superior orbital fissure and end in the orbit.

Function of the abducent nerve

Somatomotor functions:

  • Eye movement, abduction of the eyes

Sensory functions:

  • Proprioception

Cranial Nerve VII: Facial Nerve

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The facial nerve is a mixed cranial nerve with motor, sensory and parasympathetic parts. The sensory axons extend from the taste buds of the anterior two-thirds of the tongue through the geniculate ganglion, to the pons (bridge). Somatomotor neurons, on the other hand, originate from a nucleus of the pons and pass through the temporal bone. The axons of the parasympathetic neurons of the facial nerve end in the two parasympathetic ganglions (pterygopalatine ganglion and submandibular ganglion).

Nervus facialis

Image: “Facial Canal” by Mikael Häggström. License: CC BY 2.5

Function of the facial nerve

The facial nerve has mainly motor functions. However, a part of its fibres, which is called an intermediate nerve, serves the sensory functions.

Motor functions:

  • Innervation of the entire mimic facial musculature (platysma and muscles of the auricle)
  • Eyelid movement and closing of the eye by the orbicularis oculi muscle
  • Movement and closing of the mouth by the orbicularis oris muscle
  • Precise adjustment of the auditory ossicles by the stapedius muscle

Sensory and parasympathetic functions:

  • Sense of taste in the anterior two-thirds of the tongue
  • Innervation of the three large salivary glands, the lacrimal glands and the nasal glands
  • External acoustic meatus

Cranial Nerve VIII: Vestibulocochlear Nerve

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The vestibulocochlear nerve is a mainly sensory nerve that has its nucleus in the pons and passes together with the facial nerve to the internal acoustic meatus. There, it splits into two divisions:

  • Vestibular nerve
  • Cochlear nerve

In the vestibular nerve the sensory fibres of the semi-circular canal, the saccule and the utricle of the inner ear, pass to the vestibular ganglion ending in the vestibular nuclei of the pons.

Axons originating in motor neurons project from the pons to the hair cells of the semi-circular canal, the saccule and the utricle.

The sensory fibres, located in the cochlear ganglion and passing to the nuclei of the medulla oblongata, originate from the cochlear nerve in the organ of corti (spiral organ) located in the cochlea of the inner ear.

Axons of motor neurons extend from the pons to the hair cells of the spiral organ of corti.

Function of the vestibulocochlear nerve

Vestibular nerve:

  • Regulation of the hair cells for the adjustment of sensitivity (spatial position)
  • Transmission of impulses for the sense of balance

Cochlear nerve:

  • Regulation of the hair cells for the adjustment of sensitivity (regarding sound waves)
  • Transmission of impulses for hearing
Vestibulo-ocular Reflex

Image: “Vestibulo-ocular Reflex” by philschatz. License: CC BY 4.0

Cranial Nerve IX: Glossopharyngeal Nerve

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The glossopharyngeal nerve is a mixed cranial nerve with motor, sensory and parasympathetic fibres, which exits the medulla oblongata behind the olivary bodies, together with the vagus nerve and the accessory nerve.

In the area of the posterior cranial fossa, the sensory fibres exit the cranial cavity; pass between the internal carotid artery and the internal jugular vein, until they laterally reach the root of the tongue. The motor fibres pass through the jugular foramen from the nuclei of the medulla.

Function of the glossopharyngeal nerve

Motor functions:

  • Innervation of the palate muscles and the muscles of the pharynx by the vagus nerve
  • Dilatation of the pharynx during swallowing and speaking

Sensory functions:

  • Innervation of the mucosa of the middle ear, the mastoid and the eardrum
  • Supply of the velum, including the palatine tonsil and the posterior third of the tongue
  • Taste and somatic perception (touch, pain and temperature) of the posterior third of the tongue
  • Proprioception in the swallowing musculature
  • Blood pressure regulation
  • Regulation of the oxygen and carbon dioxide content of the blood for the control of ventilation

Parasympathetic functions:

  • Stimulation of salivation
  • Carotid glomus – contains chemoreceptors responsible for the oxygen content, as well as pressure receptors that are important for the regulation of blood pressure

Cranial Nerve X: Vagus Nerve

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Nervus vagus and nervus laryngeus recurrens

Image: “Drawing of the Left Recurrent Laryngeal Nerve” by Jkwchui. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The vagus nerve is the parasympathetic main nerve, which is responsible for large parts of the organism and which innervates almost all the organs of the thorax and the abdomen.

After exiting the medulla oblongata, the vagus nerve passes to the skull base. Near the carotid artery, it passes to the interpleural space in the neck, where it gives off branches to the base of heart (to the atriums) and the hilum of lung.

Sensory parts of the vagus nerve originate from the skin of the outer ear. They can cause cough and nausea if they receive a certain stimulus (cotton bud). A few sensory parts originate in the epiglottis and the pharynx; proprioceptors originate in the muscles of neck and pharynx and in chemoreceptors in the carotid glomus near the aortic arch. Further branches pass to the recurrent laryngeal nerve, which passes back to the laryngeal cartilage to supply the vocal folds. In addition, there are axons of viscerosensory receptors of thoracic and abdominal organs.

Additionally, parasympathetic fibres extend from the nuclei of the medulla to the lung and the heart. The pressure receptors at the carotid glomus contain fibres of the vagus nerve that are necessary for the blood regulation. The vagus gives rise to a network of branches around the oesophagus to enter the abdomen at the oesophageal hiatus.

The glands of the gastrointestinal tract, the smooth musculature of the respiratory tract, the stomach, the oesophagus, the gallbladder, the small intestine and most part of the large intestine are supplied by parasympathetic axons.

The skeleton muscles of the inner and outer neck are innervated by somatomotor neurons.

Function of the vagus nerve

Sensory functions:

  • Taste and sensation (touch, pain, temperature etc.) in the epiglottis and the pharynx
  • Blood pressure regulation
  • Regulation of the oxygen and carbon dioxide content in the blood for the control of ventilation
  • Sensation in visceral, thoracic and abdominal organs

Somatomotor functions:

  • Swallowing
  • Coughing
  • Voice production

Parasympathetic functions:

  • Contraction and relaxation of the smooth musculature of the gastrointestinal tract
  • Reduction of the heart rate
  • Secretion of digestive juices

Cranial Nerve XI: Accessory Nerve

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The accessory nerve is a mainly motor, mixed cranial nerve, which emerges from the brainstem and the spinal cord.

Cranial root:

The cranial root arises from the nuclei of the medulla oblongata. It passes through the jugular foramen and supplies the musculature of the pharynx, the larynx and the velum to enable the swallowing process.

Spinal root:

The spinal root contains mixed, but mainly motor axons. The motor axons pass through the foramen magnum and exit the jugular foramen together with the cranial fibres. Motor impulses are transmitted via the spinal root to the sternocleidomastoid muscle and the trapezius muscle, which control the movement of the head.

Sensory axons originate from the proprioceptors of the muscles. They supply the motor neurons and end in the medulla oblongata.

Muscles Controlled by the Accessory Nerve

Image: “Muscles Controlled by the Accessory Nerve” by philschatz. License: CC BY 4.0

Function of the Accessory Nerve

Sensory functions:

  • Proprioception

Somatomotor functions:

  • Innervation of the sternocleidomastoid muscle and the trapezius muscle to control the movement of head and shoulders
  • Swallowing movement

Cranial Nerve XII: Hypoglossal Nerve

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The hypoglossal nerve is a mixed cranial nerve with mainly motor functions.

The somatomotor axons passing through the hypoglossal canal arise from a nucleus of the medulla oblongata. However, the sensory part consists of axons of proprioceptors of the tongue muscles, and ends in the medulla oblongata.

Function of the hypoglossal nerve

Somatomotor functions:

  • Innervation of tongue muscles
  • Transmission of impulses for speaking and swallowing

Sensory functions:

  • Proprioception

Overview of the 12 cranial nerves

Cranial Nerve Function Nuclei Quality
I – olfactory nerve (smell) Transmits signals from the olfactory organ (nose) to the brain Somatosensory, afferent
II – optic nerve (vision) Transmits visual signals from the retina to the brain Somatosensory, afferent
III – oculomotor nerve (eye movement) Control of four out of six outer eye muscles and the lifting muscle of the upper eyelid; accommodation; contraction of the pupil Oculomotor nucleus, Erdinger-Westphal nucleus Somatomotor and vegetative, efferent
IV – trochlear nerve (eye rotation/movement) Control of the superior oblique muscle Trochlear nucleus Somatomotor, efferent
V – trigeminal nerve (facial sensation) Subdivision into eye nerve (ophthalmic nerve), upper jaw nerve (maxillary nerve), lower jaw nerve (mandibular nerve); receives sensation from the facial area and transmits it to the brain; innervation of the muscles of mastication Spinal accessory nucleus, principal (sensory) nucleus of trigeminal nerve, mesencephalic nucleus of trigeminal nerve, spinal nucleus of trigeminal nerve Somatosensory and visceromotor, efferent and afferent
VI – abducent nerve (eye movement) Innervation of the lateral eye muscle Abducens nucleus Somatomotor, efferent
VII – facial nerve (facial expression) Provides motor innervation to the muscles of facial expression and the stapedius muscle; also transmits gustatory perception from the anterior two-thirds of the tongue; innervation of all glands of the head, except the parotid gland Nucleus of facial nerve, superior salivary nucleus, solitary nucleus Visceromotor, vegetative and sensory, efferent and afferent
VIII – vestibulocochlear nerve (hearing and balance) Carries sensory information from the cochlea and the vestibular system Cochlear nuclei, vestibular nuclei Sensory, afferent
IX – glossopharyngeal nerve (oral sensation, taste, salivation) Carries information from the posterior part of the tongue to the brain; innervation of pharyngeal muscles; control of deglutition; innervation of the parotid gland Ambiguous nucleus, inferior salivary nucleus, nucleus of solitary tract, spinal nucleus of trigeminal nerve Sensory, visceromotor and vegetative, efferent and afferent
X – vagus nerve (“wandering nerve“) Main nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system; regulation of the activity of internal organs Ambiguous nucleus, dorsal nucleus of vagus nerve, nucleus of solitary tract, spinal nucleus of trigeminal nerve Sensory, visceromotor and vegetative, efferent and afferent
XI – accessory nerve (shoulder and head movement) Control of the trapezius muscle and the sternocleidomastoid muscle Ambiguous nucleus, spinal accessory nucleus Somatomotor, efferent
XII – hypoglossal nerve (tongue movement – hypo= under, glossus= tongue) Motor innervation of the muscles of the tongue Hypoglossal nucleus Somatomotor, efferent

Popular exam questions on cranial nerves

The solutions can be found below the reference list.

1. Which mixed cranial nerve, with mainly sensory parts, is regarded as the largest cranial nerve?

  1. N. vagus
  2. N. trigeminus
  3. N. vestibulocochlearis
  4. N. facialis
  5. N. trochlearis

2. Which cranial nerves are purely sensory?

  1. N. olfactorius, N. opticus and N. vagus
  2. N. vagus, N. oculomotorius and N. opticus
  3. N. olfactorius, N. oculomotorius and N. accessorius
  4. N. olfactorius, N. opticus and N. vestibulocochlearis
  5. N. vagus, N. accessorius and N. vestibulocochlearis

3. Which nerves are not nerves in the proper sense, but fibre tracts and part of the brain?

  1. N. olfactorius and N. opticus
  2. N. vagus and N. oculomotorius
  3. N. olfactorius and N. oculomotorius
  4. N. opticus and N. oculomotorius
  5. N. vagus and N. accessorius
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