The Essence In Embryos

Nobody starts life with a head: sperm and egg come together to make a single cell. Between the moment of conception and the third week thereafter, we go from that single cell to a ball of cells, then to a Frisbee-shaped collection of cells, then to something that looks vaguely like a tube and includes different kinds of tissues. Between the twenty-third and twenty-eighth days after conception, the front end of the tube thickens and folds over the body, so the embryo looks as if it's already curled up in the fetal position. The head at this stage looks like a big glob. The base of this glob holds the key to much of the basic organization of our heads.

Four little swellings develop around the area that will become the throat. At about three weeks we see the first two; the other two emerge about four days later. Each swelling looks quite humble on the outside: a simple blob, separated from the next by a little crease. When you follow what happens to the blobs and creases, you begin to see the order and beauty of the head, including the trigeminal and facial nerves.

Of the cells inside each blob, known as arches, some will form bone tissue and others muscle and blood vessels. There is a complex mix of cells inside each arch; some cells divided right there while others migrated a long way to enter the arch itself. When we identify the cells in each arch according to where they end up in the adult, things start to make a lot of sense.

Ultimately, the first arch tissues form the upper and lower jaws, two tiny ear bones (the malleus and incus), and all the vessels and muscles that supply them. The second arch forms the third small ear bone (the stapes), a tiny throat bone, and most of the muscles that control facial expression. The third arch forms bones, muscles, and nerves deeper in the throat; we use these to swallow. Finally, the fourth arch forms the deepest parts of our throat, including parts of our larynx and the muscles and vessels that surround it and help it function.

If you were to shrink yourself to the size of a pinhead and travel inside the mouth of the developing embryo, you would see indentations that correspond to each swelling. There are four of these indentations. And, like the arches on the outside, cells on the indentations form important structures. The first elongates to form our Eustachian tube and some structures in the ear. The second forms the cavity that holds our tonsils. The third and fourth form important glands, including the parathyroid, thymus, and thyroid.

What I've just given you is one of the big tricks for understanding the most complicated cranial nerves and large portions of the head. When you think trigeminal nerve, think first arch. Facial nerve, second arch. The reason the trigeminal nerve goes to both the jaws and the ear is that all the structures it supplies originally developed in the first arch. The same thing is true for the facial nerve and the second arch. What do the muscles of facial expression have in common with the muscles in the ear that the facial nerve supplies? They are all second arch derivatives. As for the nerves of the third and fourth arches, their complex paths all relate to the fact that they innervate structures that arose from their respective arches. Those third and fourth arch nerves, among them the glossopharyngeal and vagus, follow the same pattern as the ones in front, each going to structures that developed from the arch they are associated with.

Arches Embryos

If we follow the gill arches from an embryo to an adult, we can trace the origins of jaws, ears, larynx, and throat. Bones, muscles, nerves, and arteries all develop inside these gill arches.

This fundamental blueprint of heads helps us make sense of one of the apocryphal tales in anatomy. In 1820, so the story goes, Johannes Goethe was walking through the Jewish cemetery in Vienna when he spotted the decomposing skeleton of a ram. The vertebrae were exposed and above them lay a damaged skull. Goethe, in a moment of epiphany, saw that the breaks in the skull made it look like a gnarled mess of vertebrae. To Goethe, this revealed the essential pattern within: the head is made up of vertebrae that fused and grew a vault to hold our brains and sense organs. This was a revolutionary idea because it linked heads and bodies as two versions of the same fundamental plan. The notion must have been in the drinking water in the early 1800s because other people, among them Lorenz Oken, allegedly came up with virtually the same idea in a similar setting.

Goethe and Oken were both picking up something very profound, although they could not have known it at the time. Our body is segmented, and this pattern is most clearly seen in our vertebrae. Each vertebra is a block that represents a segment of our body. The organization of our nerves is also segmental, correlating closely with the pattern of the vertebrae. Nerves exit the spinal cord to supply the body. The segmental configuration is obvious when you look at the levels of the spinal cord that are associated with each part of our body. For example, the muscles in our legs are supplied by nerves that exit from lower parts of the spinal cord than those that supply our arms. Heads may not look it, but they also contain a very deep segmental pattern. Our arches define segments of bones, muscles, arteries, and nerves. Look in the adult, and you won't see this pattern. We see it only in the embryo.

Our skulls lose all overt evidence of their segmental origins as we go from embryo to adult. The plate-like bones of our skulls form over our gill arches, and the muscles, nerves, and arteries, which all had a very simple segmental pattern early on, are rewired to make our adult heads.

Knowing something about development can help us predict where to look for what is missing in children who have certain birth defects. For example, children born with first arch syndrome have a tiny jaw and nonfunctioning ears with no malleus or incus bone. Missing are structures that normally would have formed from the first arch.

The arches are the road map for major chunks of the skull, from the most complicated cranial nerves to the muscles, arteries, bones, and glands inside. The arches are also a guide to something else: our very deep connection with sharks.

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