NEURO-ANATOMY: Summary of the Cranial Nerves

The cranial nerves are a set of 12 paired nerves that arise directly from the brain. The first two nerves (olfactory and optic) arise from the cerebrum, whereas the remaining ten emerge from the brain stem.

The names of the cranial nerves relate to their function and they are also numerically identified in roman numerals (I-XII).

Origin of the Cranial Nerves

There are twelve cranial nerves in total. The olfactory nerve (CN I) and optic nerve (CN II) originate from the cerebrum.
Cranial nerves III – XII arise from the brain stem (Figure 1). They can arise from a specific part of the brain stem (midbrain, pons or medulla), or from a junction between two parts:
  • Midbrain – the trochlear nerve (IV) comes from the posterior side of the midbrain. It has the longest intracranial length of all the cranial nerves.
  • Midbrain-pontine junction – oculomotor (III).
  • Pons – trigeminal (V).
  • Pontine-medulla junction – abducens, facial, vestibulocochlear (VI-VIII).
  • Medulla Oblongata – posterior to the olive: glossopharyngeal, vagus, accessory (IX-XI). Anterior to the olive: hypoglossal (XII).

The cranial nerves are numbered by their location on the brain stem (superior to inferior, then medial to lateral) and the order of their exit from the cranium (anterior to posterior).
Figure 1 - The location of the cranial nerves on the cerebrum and brainstem.
The location of the cranial nerves on the cerebrum and brainstem.
Figure 2 - Superior view of the skull base showing the foramina and which cranial nerves pass through them.
Superior view of the skull base showing the foramina and which cranial nerves pass through them


Simplistically, each cranial nerve can be described as being sensory, motor or both. They can more specifically transmit seven types of information; three are unique to cranial nerves (SSS, SVS and SVM). See table 1 for a summary of the cranial nerves, their modalities and functions.

Sensory (afferent) Modalities:

  • General somatic sensory (GSS) – general sensation from skin.
  • General visceral sensory (GVS) – general sensation from viscera.
  • Special somatic sensory (SSS) – senses derived from ectoderm (sight, sound, balance).
  • Special visceral sensory (SVS) – senses derived from endoderm (taste).

Motor (efferent) Modalities:

  • General somatic motor (GSM) – skeletal muscles.
  • General visceral motor (GVM) – smooth muscles of gut and autonomic motor.
  • Special visceral motor (SVM) – muscles derived from pharyngeal arches.

Summary Table

1 (CNI)OlfactoryCribriform plateSensory(SVS)Smell
2 (CNII)OpticOptic canalSensory(SSS)Vision
3 (CNIII)OculomotorSuperior orbital fissureMotor(GSM & GVM)GSM: 4 extrinsic eye muscles and levator palpebrae superioris.GVM: pupillary sphincter
4 (CNIV)TrochlearSuperior orbital fissureMotor(GSM)Superior oblique
5 (CNV)Trigeminal:

OphthalmicSuperior orbital fissureGSSScalp, forehead and nose.

MaxillaryF. rotundumGSSCheeks, lower eye lid, nasal mucosa, upper lip, upper teeth and palate.

MandibularF. ovaleGSS SVMGSS: anterior 2/3 tongue, skin over mandible and lower teeth.SVM: muscles of mastication.
6 (CNVI)AbducensSuperior orbital fissureMotor(GSM)Lateral rectus
7 (CNVII)FacialInternal acoustic meatus > stylomastoid f.Both:GSS
GSS: sensation to part of ext. ear.SVS: taste from ant. 2/3 tongue, hard and soft palate.
GSM: muscles of facial expression.
GVM: lacrimal, submandibular, sublingual glands and mucous glands of mouth and nose.
8 (CNVIII)VestibulocochlearInternal acoustic meatusSensory(SSS)Hearing and balance
9 (CNIX)GlossopharyngealJugular f.Both:GSS
GSS: post. 1/3 tongue, ext. ear, and middle ear cavity.GVS: carotid body and sinus.
SVS: taste from post. 1/3 tongue.
GVM: parotic gland. SVM: stylopharyngeus
10(CNX)VagusJugular f.Both:GSS
GSS: ext. ear, larynx and pharynx.GVS: larynx, pharynx and, thoracic & abdominal viscera.
SVS: taste from epiglottis region of tongue
GVM: smooth muscles of pharynx, larynx and most of the GIT.
SVM: most muscles of pharynx and larynx.
11 (CNXI)Spinal accessoryJugular f.Motor(GSM & SVM)GSM: trapezius and sternocleidomastoid.SVM: a few fibres run with CNX to viscera.
12 (CNXII)HypoglossalHypoglossal canalMotor(GSM)Intrinsic and extrinsic tongue muscles (except the palatoglossus).