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Document design patterns for named nerves #298

cmungall opened this issue Jul 7, 2013 · 3 comments


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commented Jul 7, 2013

The representation of nerves and their parts varies wildly from ontology to ontology. We should create a shared set of design patterns for nerves.

This item serves as a draft for this design pattern. The text here will be altered on the basis of comments entered below.

Anyone is welcome to comment. Particularly interested in comments on nerve innervation from David OS and @RDruzinsky

the focus of this articles is vertebrates, but much can be learned from work done on invertebrates. See in particular the representation of neuron connectivity in VFB and FlyBase:

A strategy for building neuroanatomy ontologies
D Osumi-Sutherland, S Reeve, CJ Mungall, F Neuhaus… - Bioinformatics, 2012

Nerve categorization

A fairly standard subdivision into cranial and spinal:

Note however, that not every CN is a true PNS nerve. More on this later.

Nerve subdivisions

Nerves can be subdivided

  1. lengthwise from their origin in the CNS to their destination. e.g a muscle
  2. in cross-section - e.g. into bundles of axons, epineurium etc

We focus here on 1 as this is where some inconsistencies currently lie. However, our answers to 1 depend to a large extent on 2, as nerves must be defined in terms of cellular components such as axons.

The open question here is roots - are roots considered part of the nerve, part of the CNS (ie brain for CNs), or do they overap? We have to be careful as if the CNS and PNS are considered not to overlap, and nerves are considered entirely part of the PNS we get incoherent ontologies quickly.

We must also consider axon tracts here. E.g.



What is the relationship to the brain structure sending the signal? In spatial terms the answer depends in part on how we handle roots above, and must be guided by relationships at the level of cell components


The RO relation needs generalizing to be applicable to muscles, skin etc



Is the relationship between the placodes develops_from or has developmental contribution from?

For cranial nerves (CNs) here is a subset of the current hierarchy


Do we consider a nerve a branching structure or a tube-like structure? I.e. is a branch of nerve X also a part of nerve X?

Clue: axons

The answer here should be informed by (but not necessarily identical to) how we treat branching on blood vessels, etc. See #170

Differences in branching may also provide problems for a multi-species representation. CNs are relatively well preserved, but named branches may tend to be lineage specific?

Optic nerve

Remember this isn't truly a PNS nerve

Treatment in other ontologies

FMA has an (undefined) "central zone of nerve"

        is_a FMA:86142 ! Zone of nerve
         is_a FMA:82524 ! Central zone of nerve *** 
          is_a FMA:72499 ! Vestibulocochlear nerve tract
          is_a FMA:72501 ! Trigeminal nerve tract
          is_a FMA:72627 ! Glossopharyngeal nerve tract
          is_a FMA:72628 ! Vagal nerve tract

We assume that "central zone" refers to the zone that is part of the CNS. Thus a nerve - in FMA - is not constrained to be purely PNS (unless we allow CNS and PNS to overlap, which may be an odd decision)

The same hierarchy with parthood relations

         is_a FMA:82524 ! Central zone of nerve *** 
          is_a FMA:72499 ! Vestibulocochlear nerve tract [regional_part_of: "Pontine tegmentum"]
          is_a FMA:72501 ! Trigeminal nerve tract [regional_part_of: "Pontine tegmentum"]
          is_a FMA:72627 ! Glossopharyngeal nerve tract [constitutional_part_of: "Medulla oblongata"]
          is_a FMA:72628 ! Vagal nerve tract [constitutional_part_of: "Medulla oblongata"]

It's not clear why these are only named for a subset of the cranial nerves.

We can also look at the terminology used:

         is_a FMA:82524 ! Central zone of nerve *** 
          is_a FMA:72499 ! Vestibulocochlear nerve tract [SYNONYM: "Central part of vestibulocochlear nerve" (exact)] [SYNONYM: "Statoacoustic nerve fibers" (exact)] [SYNONYM: "Vestibulocochlear nerve fibers" (exact)] [SYNONYM: "Vestibulocochlear nerve roots" (exact)]
          is_a FMA:72501 ! Trigeminal nerve tract [SYNONYM: "Central part of trigeminal nerve" (exact)] [SYNONYM: "Trigeminal nerve fibers" (exact)]
          is_a FMA:72627 ! Glossopharyngeal nerve tract [SYNONYM: "Central part of glossopharyngeal nerve" (exact)] [SYNONYM: "Glossopharyngeal nerve fibers" (exact)] [SYNONYM: "Ninth cranial nerve fibers" (exact)]
          is_a FMA:72628 ! Vagal nerve tract [SYNONYM: "Central part of vagus nerve" (exact)] [SYNONYM: "Tenth cranial nerve fibers" (exact)] [SYNONYM: "Vagal nerve fibers" (exact)]

Note that FMA considers "X nerve fibers" "central part of X" and "X tract" as synonyms. Is this correct?

Nerve fibers surely extend into the PNS portion (unless the FMA considers the CNS "tunneling through" the nerves which might be an interesting approach)

Note that NIFSTD creates separate classes for nerve fibers and tracts.

Here are some nerve fibers in NIFSTD:

  is_a NIF_GrossAnatomy:birnlex_16 ! Regional part of organ
    is_a NIF_GrossAnatomy:birnlex_1167 ! Regional part of brain
     is_a NIF_GrossAnatomy:birnlex_1172 ! Trochlear nerve fibers *** 
     is_a NIF_GrossAnatomy:birnlex_1274 ! Glossopharyngeal nerve fiber bundle *** 
     is_a NIF_GrossAnatomy:birnlex_1288 ! Hypoglossal nerve fiber bundle *** 
     is_a NIF_GrossAnatomy:birnlex_1323 ! Oculomotor nerve fibers *** 
     is_a NIF_GrossAnatomy:birnlex_1636 ! Vestibulocochlear nerve fiber bundle *** 
     is_a NIF_GrossAnatomy:birnlex_1689 ! Abducens nerve fibers *** 
     is_a NIF_GrossAnatomy:birnlex_765 ! Vagal nerve fiber bundle *** 
     is_a NIF_GrossAnatomy:birnlex_974 ! Trigeminal nerve fibers *** 
    is_a NIF_GrossAnatomy:birnlex_1496 ! Regional part of spinal cord
     is_a NIF_GrossAnatomy:birnlex_916 ! Accessory nerve fiber bundle *** 

Note that in NIFSTD the CNS and PNS part-overlap:

  is_a NIF_GrossAnatomy:birnlex_6 ! Anatomical entity
   is_a NIF_GrossAnatomy:birnlex_11 ! Regional part of body system
    is_a NIF_GrossAnatomy:birnlex_1157 ! Part of nervous system
     is_a NIF_GrossAnatomy:birnlex_1122 ! Regional part of peripheral nervous system
      is_a NIF_GrossAnatomy:birnlex_1615 ! Nerve part of peripheral nervous system
       is_a NIF_GrossAnatomy:birnlex_1623 ! Cranial nerve
        is_a NIF_GrossAnatomy:birnlex_1319 ! Olfactory nerve
         proper_part_of NIF_GrossAnatomy:birnlex_1632 ! Olfactory nerve root *** 
   is_a NIF_GrossAnatomy:birnlex_16 ! Regional part of organ
    is_a NIF_GrossAnatomy:birnlex_1167 ! Regional part of brain
     is_a NIF_GrossAnatomy:nlx_144250 ! Nerve root
      is_a NIF_GrossAnatomy:birnlex_1632 ! Olfactory nerve root *** 

The ON root is part of the brain and part of the PNS

Note the same pattern is not followed for all roots.


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commented Jul 8, 2013

Note from MM:
"nerve root and nerve fibers should not be synonymous"


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commented Sep 10, 2017

Digging up this issue since it is the cause of many incompatibilities with NIFGA (while these terms are deprecated I want to use them to make sure that when we transition the representations are at least minimally compatible).

At the moment my primary concern is with the optic nerve wrt the cranial nerves. The the simplest way to resolve this issue seems to be to treat 'cranial nerves' as a more colloquial term that includes the optic nerve and the 'peripheral cranial nerves.' This would allow us to treat the optic nerve separately without having to accommodate a definition of nerve that is both central and peripheral. The alternative seems to be to split nerve into a peripheral and a central class (since it is not reasonable to model the optic nerve as a white matter tract).

Thoughts @cmungall @memartone?


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commented Sep 10, 2017

what we ended up doing but not documented in this ticket was a compromise: CN retains a nerve classification, but we introduce a new grouping UBERON:0034713 ! cranial neuron projection bundle

here is a subset:


it's not ideal. The weirdly named grouping is more inclusive than you might want as it contains other projection bundles beyond the classic ones. But everything is consistent at least.

I'm open to your suggestion. If implemented how would you feel about

  1. The existing UBERON:0001785 ! cranial nerve gets renamed to something like "true cranial nerve" or "cranial PNS nerve" (since this it's semantics)
  2. We introduce a new ID for "cranial nerve" which is treated as you as nothing more than a colloquial grouping with asserted subclasses. Its superclass would be "neuron projection bundle"
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