Temporal Lobe: Function, Location and Structure

The temporal lobe, which crosses both hemispheres of the brain, helps process sensory input, including pain and auditory stimuli.

What Are Some Important Structures in the Temporal Lobe?

Temporal-Lobe-Highlighted-Near-Front-of-Brain

As one of just four lobes in the brain, the temporal lobe is less a discrete organ, and more of a home to numerous other structures. Some of the most important structures in the temporal lobe include:

  • Limbic lobe: This brain region actually intersects with several lobes, but interacts directly with the temporal lobe to influence the limbic system, including automatic emotional reactions such as the fight-or-flight response and the limbic system. The limbic lobe is home to key memory, learning, and attention processing structures such as the amygdala and hippocampus. This brain region also manages a number of automatic, unconscious bodily functions, as well as unconscious emotional states, such as sexual arousal and appetite.
  • Wernicke's area: This brain region is associated with the understanding and processing of speech.
  • Broca's area: This brain region aids in the production of speech, though some evidence suggests that, when Broca's area is damaged, nearby regions may compensate. Together with Wernicke's area, Broca's area aids communication.
Infographic-Temporal-Lobe

What Does The Temporal Lobe Control?

The temporal lobe is not a standalone organ. It directly interacts with other regions of the brain, and sends and receives signals to and from the spinal cord, allowing it to communicate with the entire body. Thus damage to the temporal lobe can affect functioning in far-flung organs, and damage to organs completely unrelated to the temporal lobe may impede its ability to receive, process, and respond to various cues.

Because the temporal lobe houses much of the limbic system, the temporal lobe is both heavily influenced by and influences a number of automatic bodily functions, including heart rate, arousal, anxiety, and similar states. Over time, disruptions in these states can affect other bodily functions. For example, early childhood trauma predisposes some people to a chronic state of anxiety that keeps them in a state of fight-or-flight. This floods the body with hormones such as cortisol, and can lead to chronic inflammation, and even health problems such as infertility.

 

What Happens When the Temporal Lobe is Damaged?

Because the temporal lobe is involved in so many bodily functions, damage to the temporal lobe can be catastrophic. Severe damage can cause life-threatening bleeding, blood clots, and other conditions that can lead to death if left untreated.

The prognosis associated with temporal lobe damage is heavily dependent upon the location of the damage, source of the damage, and prompt medical care. For instance, a person who seeks medical care in response to a potential brain lesion early may see less growth of that lesion, and therefore less temporal lobe damage. Quality treatment, including occupational and speech therapy, as well as overall health, diet, lifestyle, and age also affect prognosis.

Ultimately, though, there is no way to predict the prognosis of a temporal lobe injury with absolute certainty. The brain remains a mysterious organ, and much about it is poorly understood; some people, for example, are still able to speak even in spite of extensive damage to Broca's area, while others completely lose speech in response to minor damage. Likewise, some people spontaneously recover from severe temporal lobe damage, while others make little to no progress with treatment. There are exceptions to every rule, but your doctor is your best source of predictions about your injury, and a healthy lifestyle can only improve your prognosis.

The effects of temporal lobe damage are myriad, and can include:

  • Temporal lobe epilepsy: The most common form of epilepsy, and the most common cause of seizures, temporal lobe epilepsy produces uncontrolled electrical activity in the brain that can lead to seizures.
  • Various forms of aphasia, a disorder of speech and language. Damage to Broca's area tends to impede the ability to speak, while damage to Wernicke's area can impede the ability to understand speech.
  • Impaired memory skills. The nature of the impairment depends on the location of the injury, but common problems include difficulty recognizing people, faces, or objects; poor long-term memory; disturbances in autobiographical memory, and poor auditory memory.
  • Changes in personality, particularly regarding emotional regulation and interpersonal interactions.
  • Changes in self-image and self-perception: Because the temporal lobe houses many of our memories, disruptions in or loss of autobiographical memory can produce personality changes, as well as changes in a person's sense of self.
  • Changes in automatic behaviors, such as hunger, thirst, appetite, and sexual desire. Some people with frontal lobe disorders develop addictions, inappropriate sexual behavior, poor impulse control, and aggression. Changes in appetite can be especially problematic, since both overeating and under-eating can affect overall health, thereby affecting brain function and exacerbating pre-existing damage.
  • Changes in executive function. Some people with temporal lobe damage struggle to plan or coordinate their actions.
  • Changes in spatial navigation and spatial reasoning. Damage to the frontal lobe impedes memory, and spatial reasoning—including driving—is heavily dependent on memory. Thus some people with temporal lobe damage may experience challenges driving, paying attention to physical directions, or navigating their way around the world.

Sources:

  • Temporal lobe definition functions quiz.
  • Patel A. Neuroanatomy, Temporal Lobe. StatPearls [Internet]. Published April 3, 2020. Accessed May 11, 2020. Learn More.
  • Brain lobes. Mayo Clinic. Accessed May 11, 2020.
  • Allen, Paul, Moore, et al. Emerging Temporal Lobe Dysfunction in People at Clinical High Risk for Psychosis. Frontiers. Published April 16, 2019. Accessed May 11, 2020.