I am looking for an umbrella term for general "parts of the brain", esp. for (somehow arbitrary) "subsets of neurons".

For the tree of life there is an umbrella term for all kinds of taxonomic groups all down the tree. They are called taxa.

Domains, kingdoms, phylums all down to families, genus, and species are taxa:

enter image description here

In brain sciences there seems to be no such umbrella term which is generally agreed upon.

Which term would best include all of the following?

  • brain hemispheres

  • coarse brain subdivisions (cerebellum, cerebrum, ...)

  • cerebral lobes (frontal, parietal, ...)

  • the thalamus („a large mass of gray matter“)

  • nuclei (thalamic, ...)

  • Brodman areas

  • cortical layers

  • cortical columns

  • the limbic system

  • regions of interest (in fMRI)

All of these immediate suggestions don't fit perfectly:

  • (brain) region

  • (brain) division

  • (brain) area

  • (brain) volume

  • (neural) group

  • (functional) system


2 Answers 2


When you just want to list the components of the brain, that is to say what the brain consists of from the gross anatomy perspective, you can say that the main parts of the brain are:

  • cerebrum
  • cerebellum
  • brainstem

You can also say that the parts of the brain are some smaller, but anatomically well defined components, such as the pineal gland and pituitary gland.

When you intend to describe the functions of anatomically well defined brain areas, you can say that the brain structures are cerebral lobes, thalamus, hypothalamus, hypocampus, amygdala, putamen, corpus callosum, cyngulate gyrus, etc.

A part is "a portion or division of a whole that is separate or distinct; piece. A structure is "mode of building, construction, or organization; arrangement of parts, elements, or constituents." So, it's not about what "it is," but about how you look at it. A thalamus is a part of brain and is a structure made of several nuclei...

You can see these terms used very differently in various texts, but a short overview of brain anatomy by Mayfield clinic use them in the same way as I did. These terms are not a part of any official classification in neurology.

  • $\begingroup$ This fits perfectly, for the moment. So, to call a cortical column a (anatomical) "part" would be OK, but also to call it a (functional) "structure"? I can go on with this, thanks for your "opinion", which surely is not an arbitrary one. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 29, 2020 at 17:38
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It's nothing written in stone here. My impression is that "parts" are used to describe anatomy and "structures" to describe physiology. To me, it sounds fine if you say that a hemisphere is a part; saying it's a structure sounds awkward, because a hemisphere as such does not really "do" anything. Thalamus can be both a part and a structure if you want. $\endgroup$
    – Jan
    Commented Jan 29, 2020 at 17:41
  • $\begingroup$ And what about cortical columns being a part? How does this sound in your ears? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 29, 2020 at 18:31
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting enough, thank you for the clarification - even though it still might be not written in stone, right? And why do you say cortical columns are not "(functional) structures". At least they are considered "functional units", aren't they? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 30, 2020 at 10:39
  • $\begingroup$ OK, particular cortical columns can be associated with particular functions, so if you insist, they could be brain structures. A "part" is a "piece" in the sense that you can disassemble a complex thing, lie a car, into clearly defined pieces. When it comes to brain, you can say something is a part when you just want to mention it as part of the bigger brain. If you want to describe it from inside, you can say a structure. It's about the perspective not what "it is." $\endgroup$
    – Jan
    Commented Jan 30, 2020 at 10:57

Gerstner et al. in their splendid book Neuronal Dynamics use the term neuronal populations as a synonym for "groups of neurons", e.g. in chapter 12:

enter image description here


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