Cranial nerves are the nerves that emerge directly from the brain (including the brainstem), of which there are conventionally considered twelve pairs. Cranial nerves relay information between the brain and parts of the body, primarily to and from regions of the head and neck, including the special senses of vision, taste, smell, and hearing.[1]

The cranial nerves emerge from the central nervous system above the level of the first vertebrae of the vertebral column.[2] Each cranial nerve is paired and is present on both sides. There are conventionally twelve pairs of cranial nerves, which are described with Roman numerals I–XII. Some considered there to be thirteen pairs of cranial nerves, including cranial nerve zero. The numbering of the cranial nerves is based on the order in which they emerge from the brain and brainstem, from front to back.[2]

The terminal nerves (0), olfactory nerves (I) and optic nerves (II) emerge from the cerebrum, and the remaining ten pairs arise from the brainstem, which is the lower part of the brain.[3]

The cranial nerves are considered components of the peripheral nervous system (PNS),[3] although on a structural level the olfactory (I), optic (II), and trigeminal (V) nerves are more accurately considered part of the central nervous system (CNS).[4]

The cranial nerves are in contrast to spinal nerves, which emerge from segments of the spinal cord.[3]