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Learning Objectives

  • Identify the components and function of a neuron.
  • Describe the process of impulse transmission.
  • Identify the components and functions of the central and peripheral nervous systems.

The activity of widely diverse cells, tissues, and organs of the body must be monitored, regulated, and coordinated to effectively support human life. The interaction of the nervous and endocrine systems provides the needed control through communication.

The nervous system is specifically adapted to the rapid transmission of impulses from one area of the body to another. On the other hand, the endocrine system, working at a far slower pace, maintains body metabolism at a fairly constant level.

This section will cover the study of the glia and neuron, the two main types of cells of the nervous system. It will discuss the components and functions of the different categories of the nervous system: the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). Another division of the nervous system is the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which is further subdivided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems (Fig. 1).

Figure 1.— Organizational plan of the nervous system. Diagram summarizes the scheme used by most neurobiologists in studying the nervous system. Both the somatic nervous system (SNS) and the autonomic nervous system (ANS) include components in the CNS and PNS. Somatic sensory pathways conduct information toward integrators in the CNS, and somatic motor pathways conduct information toward somatic effectors. In the ANS, visceral sensory pathways conduct information toward CNS integrators, whereas the sympathetic and parasympathetic pathways conduct information toward autonomic effectors.

Image reprinted  from: Thibedeau, G. A., & Patton, K. T. (2006). Anatomy & Physiology (6th ed.). St. Louis: Elsevier Health Sciences.


Glia cells do not usually conduct information themselves but support the functions of the neurons in various ways. Unlike neurons, glia cells retain their capacity for cell division throughout adulthood. This characteristic gives them the ability to replace themselves and it makes them susceptible to abnormalities of cell division – such as cancer.

There are five major types of Glia cells, Astrocytes, Microglia, Ependymal cells, Oligodendrocytes, and Scwhann cells. The first four types of glia are located in the CNS and the Scwhann cells are located in the PNS. Astrocytes help feed the brain and make up the Blood Brain Barrier. Microglia enlarge, engulf, and destroy microorganisms and cellular debris. Ependymal cells have two functions in the CNS; they help produce the fluid and some have cilia that help move the fluid around. The Oligodendrocytes produce the fatty myelin sheath around the nerve fibers in the CNS.


The structure and functional unit of the nervous system is the nerve cell, or neuron, which can be classified into three types. The first is the sensory neuron, which conveys sensory impulses inward from the receptors towards the spine and brain. The second is the motor neuron, which carries command impulses from a central area to the responding muscles or organs. The third type is the interneuron, which links the sensory neurons to the motor neurons. All pathways do not have an interneuron.

The neuron is composed of dendrites, a perikaryon (cell body), and an axon (Fig. 2). The dendrites are thin receptive branches, and vary greatly in size, shape, and number with different types of neurons. They serve as receptors, conveying impulses toward the cell body. The perikaryon (literally, means surrounding the nucleus) is the cell body containing the nucleus. The single, thin extension of the cell outward from the cell body is called the axon. It conducts impulses away from the cell body to its terminal branches at the synaptic knobs, which transmit the impulses to the dendrites of the next neuron.

Figure 2.—Structure of a typical neuron. The inset is a scanning electron micrograph of a neuron. (Alan Peters.)

Image reprinted  from: Thibedeau, G. A., & Patton, K. T. (2006). Anatomy & Physiology (6th ed.). St. Louis: Elsevier Health Sciences.

Axons of the peripheral nerves are commonly enclosed in a sheath, called neurilemma, composed of Schwann cells (Figs. 2 and 3). Schwann cells wrap around the axon and act as an electrical insulator. The membranes of the Schwann cell are composed largely of a lipid-protein called myelin, which forms a myelin sheath called myelinated fibers, or white fibers on the outside of an axon. The myelin sheath has gaps between adjacent Schwann cells called nodes of Ranvier. Nerve cells without Schwann cells also lack myelin and neurilemma sheaths which are called unmyelinated fibers, or gray fibers. Myelin is important as it aids in conduction of the electrical impulse (Fig. 3).

Figure 3.— Development of the myelin sheath. A Schwann cell (neurolemmocyte) migrates to a neuron and wraps around an axon. The Schwann cell's cytoplasm is pushed to the outer layer, leaving a dense multilayered covering of plasma membrane around the axon. Because the plasma membrane of the Schwann cell is mostly the phospholipid myelin, the dense wrapping around the axon is called a myelin sheath. The outer layer of cytoplasm is called the neurilemma. The extensions of oligodendrocytes also wrap around axons to form a myelin sheath.

Image reprinted  from: Thibedeau, G. A., & Patton, K. T. (2006). Anatomy & Physiology (6th ed.). St. Louis: Elsevier Health Sciences.


When dendrites receive a sufficiently strong stimulus, a short and rapid change in electrical charge, or polarity, of the neuron is triggered. Sodium ions rush through the plasma membrane into the cell, potassium ions leave, and an electrical impulse is formed, which is conducted toward the cell body. The cell body receives the impulse and transmits it to the terminal filaments of the axon. At this point a chemical transmitter such as acetylcholine is released into the synapse, a space between the axon of the activated nerve and the dendrite receptors of another neuron. This chemical transmitter activates the next nerve. In this manner, the impulse is passed from neuron to neuron down the nerve line to a central area of up to speeds of 300 miles per hour being the fastest. It depends on the diameter, the bigger the diameter the faster the speed, along with that if it is myelinated it also moves faster.

Almost immediately after being activated, the chemical transmitter in the synapse is neutralized by the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, and the first neuron returns to its normal state by pumping out the sodium ions and drawing potassium ions back in through the plasma membrane. When these actions are completed, the nerve is ready to be triggered again. A particularly strong stimulus will cause the nerve to fire in rapid succession, or will trigger many other neurons, thus giving a feeling of intensity to the perceived sensation.


A nerve is a cordlike bundle of fibers held together with connective tissue. Each nerve fiber is an extension of a neuron. Nerves that conduct impulses into the brain or the spinal cord are called sensory nerves, and those that carry impulses to muscles and glands are termed motor nerves. Most nerves, however, include both sensory and motor fibers, and they are called mixed nerves.


The central nervous system (CNS) consists of the brain and spinal cord. The brain is almost entirely enclosed in the skull, but it is connected with the spinal cord, which lies in the canal formed by the vertebral column.


The brain has six major divisions, the medulla oblongata, pons, midbrain, diancephalon, cerebrum and the cerebellum. The cerebrum is the largest and most superiorly situated portion of the brain. It occupies most of the cranial cavity. The outer surface is called the cortex. This portion of the brain is also called "gray matter” because the nerve fibers are unmyelinated (not covered by a myelin sheath), causing them to appear gray. Beneath this layer is the medulla, often called the white matter of the brain because the nerves are myelinated (covered with a myelin sheath), giving them their white appearance.

Figure 4.—Left hemisphere of cerebrum, lateral surface. Note the highlighted lobes of the cerebrum.

Image reprinted  from: Thibedeau, G. A., & Patton, K. T. (2006). Anatomy & Physiology (6th ed.). St. Louis: Elsevier Health Sciences

CEREBRUM.—The cortex of the cerebrum is irregular in shape. It bends on itself in folds called convolutions, which are separated from each other by grooves, also known as fissures. The deep sagittal cleft, a longitudinal fissure, divides the cerebrum into two hemispheres. Other fissures further subdivide the cerebrum into lobes, each of which serves a localized, specific brain function (Fig. 4). For example, the frontal lobe is associated with the higher mental processes such as memory, the parietal lobe is concerned primarily with general sensations, the occipital lobe is related to the sense of sight, and the temporal lobe is concerned with hearing (Fig. 4).

CEREBELLUM.—The cerebellum is situated posterior to the brain stem and inferior to the occipital lobe. The cerebellum is concerned chiefly with bringing balance, harmony, and coordination to the motions initiated by the cerebrum

BRAINSTEM.—It is made up of the medulla oblongata which forms the lowest part, the pons which forms the mid portion, and the midbrain which forms the uppermost part of the brainstem. The brainstem also acts as a connection to the rest of the brain.

The medulla oblongata is the inferior portion of the brain, the last division before the beginning of the spinal cord. It connects to the spinal cord at the upper level of the first cervical vertebra (C-1). In the medulla oblongata are the centers for the control of heart action, breathing, circulation, and other vital processes such as blood pressure.

The midbrain deals with certain auditory functions, contains the visual centers, and it is involved in muscular control.

    Meninges. The outer surface of the brain and spinal cord is covered with three layers of membranes called the meninges. The dura mater is the strong outer layer; the arachnoid membrane is the delicate middle layer; and the pia mater is the vascular innermost layer that adheres to the surface of the brain and spinal cord. Inflammation of the meninges is called meningitis. The type of meningitis contracted depends upon whether the brain, spinal cord, or both are affected, as well as whether it is caused by viruses, bacteria, protozoa, yeasts, or fungi.

CEREBROSPINAL FLUID.—Cerebrospinal fluid is formed by a plexus, or network, of blood vessels in the central ventricles of the brain. It is a clear, watery solution similar to blood plasma. The total quantity of spinal fluid bathing the spinal cord is about 75 ml. This fluid is constantly being produced and reabsorbed. It circulates over the surface of the brain and spinal cord and serves as a supportive protective cushion as well as a means of exchange for nutrients and waste materials. It monitors for changes in the internal environment.

Spinal Cord

Figure 5.—The central nervous system. Details of both the brain and the spinal cord are easily seen in this Figure.

Image reprinted  from: Thibedeau, G. A., & Patton, K. T. (2006). Anatomy & Physiology (6th ed.). St. Louis: Elsevier Health Sciences

The spinal cord is continuous with the medulla oblongata and extends from the foramen magnum, through the atlas, to the lower border of the first lumbar vertebra, where it tapers to a point (Fig. 5). The spinal cord is surrounded by the bony walls of the vertebral canal. Ensheathed in the three protective meninges and surrounded by fatty tissue and blood vessels, the spinal cord does not completely fill the vertebral canal, nor does it extend the full length of it. The nerve matter is shaped roughly like the letter H. It establishes sensory communication between the brain and the spinal nerves, conducting sensory impulses from the body parts.

The spinal cord may be thought of as an electric cable containing many wires (nerves) that connect parts of the body with each other and with the brain. Sensations received by a sensory nerve are brought to the spinal cord, and the impulse is transferred either to the brain or to a motor nerve. The majority of impulses go to the brain for action. However, a system exists for quickly handling emergency situations. It is called the reflex arc (Fig. 6).

Figure 6.—Patellar reflex. Neural pathway involved in the patellar (knee jerk) reflex.

If a person touches a hot stove, the person must remove the hand from the heat source immediately or the skin will burn very quickly.

The passage of a sense impulse to the brain and back again to a motor nerve takes too much time. The reflex arc responds instantaneously to emergency situations (like the one described). The sensation of heat travels to the spinal cord on a sensory nerve. When the sensation reaches the spinal cord, it is picked up by an interneuron in the gray matter. This reception triggers the appropriate nerve to stimulate a muscle reflex drawing the hand away. An illustrated example of the reflex arc is shown in Figure 7.

Figure 7.—Functional classification of neurons in a reflex arc. Neurons can be classified according to the direction in which they conduct impulses. Notice that the most basic route of signal conduction follows a pattern called the reflex arc.

Image reprinted  from: Thibedeau, G. A., & Patton, K. T. (2006). Anatomy & Physiology (6th ed.). St. Louis: Elsevier Health Sciences.

The reflex arc works well in simple situations requiring no action of the brain. Consider what action is involved if the individual touching the stove pulls back and, in so doing, loses balance and has to grab a chair to regain stability. Then the entire spinal cord is involved.

Additional impulses must travel to the brain, down to the muscles of the legs and arms to enable the individual to maintain balance and to hold on to a steadying object. As this activity takes place, the stimulus is relayed through the sympathetic autonomic nerve fibers to the adrenal glands, causing adrenalin to flow, and stimulating heart action. The stimulus moves to the brain making the individual conscious of pain. In this example, the spinal cord has functioned not only as a center for spinal relaxes, but also as a conduction pathway for other areas of the spinal cord to the autonomic nervous system and to the brain.


The peripheral nervous system (PNS) consists of the nerves that branch out from the CNS and connects it to the other parts of the body. The PNS includes 12 pairs of cranial nerves (Fig. 8) and 31 pairs of spinal nerves (Fig. 9.

Figure 8.—Cranial nerves. Ventral surface of the brain showing attachment of the cranial nerves.

Image reprinted  from: Thibedeau, G. A., & Patton, K. T. (2006). Anatomy & Physiology (6th ed.). St. Louis: Elsevier Health Sciences.


Figure 9.—Spinal nerves. Each of 31 pairs of spinal nerves exits the spinal cavity from the intervertebral foramina. The names of the vertebrae are given on the left and the names of the corresponding spinal nerves on the right. Note that after leaving the spinal cavity, many of the spinal nerves interconnect to form networks called plexuses. The inset shows a dissection of the cervical region, showing a posterior view of cervical spinal nerves exiting intervertebral foramina on the right side. (Courtesy Vidic B, Suarez RF: Photographic atlas of the human body, St Louis, 1984, Mosby.)

Image reprinted  from: Thibedeau, G. A., & Patton, K. T. (2006). Anatomy & Physiology (6th ed.). St. Louis: Elsevier Health Sciences

While the cranial nerves are numbered in a specific order, the spinal nerves are merely numbered according to where they emerge from the spinal cord. Cranial and spinal nerves carry both voluntary and involuntary impulses.

Cranial Nerves

The 12 pairs of cranial nerves (Table 1) are sensory, motor, or mixed (sensory and motor).

Table 1.—Cranial Nerves

Image reprinted  from: Thibedeau, G. A., & Patton, K. T. (2006). Anatomy & Physiology (6th ed.). St. Louis: Elsevier Health Sciences.

“The cranial nerves are the 12 pairs of nerves emerging from the cranial cavity through various openings in the skull. Beginning with the most anterior (front) on the brain stem, they are appointed Roman numerals. An isolated cranial nerve lesion is an unusual finding in decompression sickness or gas embolism, but deficits occasionally occur.

  1. Olfactory: The olfactory nerve provides the sense of smell.
  2. Optic: The optic nerve is for vision. It functions in the recognition of light and shade and in the perception of objects. Blurring of vision, loss of vision, spots in the visual field or peripheral vision loss (tunnel vision) are also indicative of nerve involvement.
  3. Oculomotor,
  4. Trochlear,
  5. Abducens: These three nerves control eye movements in the six directions (fields) and eye movement towards the tip of the nose (giving a “crossed-eyed” look). The oculomotor nerve is responsible for movement of the pupils.
  6. Trigeminal: The Trigeminal Nerve governs sensation of the forehead and face and the clenching of the jaw. It also supplies the muscle of the ear (tensor tympani) necessary for normal hearing.
  7. Facial: The Facial Nerve controls the face muscles. It stimulates the scalp, forehead, eyelids, muscles of facial expression, cheeks, and jaw. Symmetry of the nasolabial folds (lines from nose to outside corners of the mouth) should be observed.
  8. Acoustic: The Acoustic Nerve controls hearing and balance.
  9. Glossopharyngeal: The Glossopharyngeal Nerves transmit sensation from the upper mouth and throat area. It supplies the sensory component of the gag reflex and constriction of the pharyngeal wall when saying “aah.”
  10. Vagus: The Vagus Nerve has many functions, including control of the roof of the mouth, vocal cords, and tone of the voice; hoarseness may also indicate vagus nerve involvement.
  11. Spinal Accessory: The Spinal Accessory Nerve controls the turning of the head from side to side and shoulder shrug against resistance.
  12. Hypoglossal: The Hypoglossal Nerve governs the muscle activity of the tongue. An injury to one of the hypoglossal nerves causes the tongue to twist to that side when stuck out of the mouth4.”

Spinal Nerves

There are 31 pairs of spinal nerves that originate from the spinal cord. Although spinal nerves are not named individually, they are grouped according to the level from which they arise, and each nerve is numbered in sequence. Thus, there are 8 pairs of cervical nerves, 12 pairs of thoracic nerves, 5 pairs of lumbar nerves, 5 pairs of sacral nerves, and 1 pair of coccygeal nerves (Fig. 10.

Spinal nerves (mixed) send fibers to sensory surfaces and muscles of the trunk and extremities. Nerve fibers are also sent to involuntary smooth muscles and glands of the gastrointestinal tract, urogenital system, and cardiovascular system.

Figure 10.—Spinal Nerves


The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the portion of the PNS that functions independently, automatically, and continuously, without conscious effort. It helps to regulate the smooth muscles, cardiac muscle, digestive tract, blood vessels, sweat and digestive glands, and certain endocrine glands. The autonomic nervous system is not directly under the control of the brain but usually works in harmony with the nerves that are under the brain's control. The autonomic nervous system includes two subdivisions (the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems) that act together.

The sympathetic nervous system's primary concern is to prepare the body for energyexpending, stressful, or emergency situations, also known as fight or flight. On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system is most active under routine, restful situations. The parasympathetic system also counterbalances the effects of the sympathetic system, and restores the body to a resting state. For example, during an emergency the body's heart and respiration rate increases. After the emergency, the parasympathetic system will decrease heart and respiration rate to normal. The sympathetic and parasympathetic systems work together to preserve a harmonious balance of body functions and activities.

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David L. Heiserman, Editor

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Revised: June 06, 2015