The Edinger-Westphal nucleus: a historical, structural, and functional perspective on a dichotomous terminology

J Comp Neurol. 2011 Jun 1;519(8):1413-34. doi: 10.1002/cne.22580.


The eponymous term nucleus of Edinger-Westphal (EW) has come to be used to describe two juxtaposed and somewhat intermingled cell groups of the midbrain that differ dramatically in their connectivity and neurochemistry. On one hand, the classically defined EW is the part of the oculomotor complex that is the source of the parasympathetic preganglionic motoneuron input to the ciliary ganglion (CG), through which it controls pupil constriction and lens accommodation. On the other hand, EW is applied to a population of centrally projecting neurons involved in sympathetic, consumptive, and stress-related functions. This terminology problem arose because the name EW has historically been applied to the most prominent cell collection above or between the somatic oculomotor nuclei (III), an assumption based on the known location of the preganglionic motoneurons in monkeys. However, in many mammals, the nucleus designated as EW is not made up of cholinergic, preganglionic motoneurons supplying the CG and instead contains neurons using peptides, such as urocortin 1, with diverse central projections. As a result, the literature has become increasingly confusing. To resolve this problem, we suggest that the term EW be supplemented with terminology based on connectivity. Specifically, we recommend that 1) the cholinergic, preganglionic neurons supplying the CG be termed the Edinger-Westphal preganglionic (EWpg) population and 2) the centrally projecting, peptidergic neurons be termed the Edinger-Westphal centrally projecting (EWcp) population. The history of this nomenclature problem and the rationale for our solutions are discussed in this review.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autonomic Fibers, Preganglionic
  • Behavior, Addictive
  • Eating
  • Humans
  • Mesencephalon / anatomy & histology*
  • Mesencephalon / physiology
  • Neural Pathways / anatomy & histology
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Neurons / cytology
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Urocortins / metabolism


  • Urocortins