23.6: Anatomy of the Nervous System - Biology

skills to develop

  • Describe the major anatomical features of the nervous system
  • Explain why there is no normal microbiota of the nervous system
  • Explain how microorganisms overcome defenses of the nervous system to cause infection
  • Identify and describe general symptoms associated with various infections of the nervous system

Clinical Focus PART 1

David is a 35-year-old carpenter from New Jersey. A year ago, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease that has no known cause. He has been taking a prescription corticosteroid to manage the condition, and the drug has been highly effective in keeping his symptoms at bay. However, David recently fell ill and decided to visit his primary care physician. His symptoms included a fever, a persistent cough, and shortness of breath. His physician ordered a chest X-ray, which revealed consolidation of the right lung. The doctor prescribed a course of levofloxacin and told David to come back in a week if he did not feel better.

Exercise (PageIndex{1})

  1. What type of drug is levofloxacin?
  2. What type of microbes would this drug be effective against?
  3. What type of infection is consistent with David’s symptoms?

The human nervous system can be divided into two interacting subsystems: the peripheral nervous system (PNS) and the central nervous system (CNS). The CNS consists of the brain and spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system is an extensive network of nerves connecting the CNS to the muscles and sensory structures. The relationship of these systems is illustrated in Figure (PageIndex{1}).

The Central Nervous System

The brain is the most complex and sensitive organ in the body. It is responsible for all functions of the body, including serving as the coordinating center for all sensations, mobility, emotions, and intellect. Protection for the brain is provided by the bones of the skull, which in turn are covered by the scalp, as shown in Figure (PageIndex{2}). The scalp is composed of an outer layer of skin, which is loosely attached to the aponeurosis, a flat, broad tendon layer that anchors the superficial layers of the skin. The periosteum, below the aponeurosis, firmly encases the bones of the skull and provides protection, nutrition to the bone, and the capacity for bone repair. Below the boney layer of the skull are three layers of membranes called meninges that surround the brain. The relative positions of these meninges are shown in Figure (PageIndex{2}). The meningeal layer closest to the bones of the skull is called the dura mater (literally meaning tough mother). Below the dura mater lies the arachnoid mater (literally spider-like mother). The innermost meningeal layer is a delicate membrane called the pia mater (literally tender mother). Unlike the other meningeal layers, the pia mater firmly adheres to the convoluted surface of the brain. Between the arachnoid mater and pia mater is the subarachnoid space. The subarachnoid space within this region is filled with cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). This watery fluid is produced by cells of the choroid plexus—areas in each ventricle of the brain that consist of cuboidal epithelial cells surrounding dense capillary beds. The CSF serves to deliver nutrients and remove waste from neural tissues.

Figure (PageIndex{1}): The essential components of the human nervous system are shown in this illustration. The central nervous system (CNS) consists of the brain and spinal cord. It connects to the peripheral nervous system (PNS), a network of nerves that extends throughout the body.

Figure (PageIndex{2}): The layers of tissue surrounding the human brain include three meningeal membranes: the dura mater, arachnoid mater, and pia mater. (credit: modification of work by National Institutes of Health)

The Blood-Brain Barrier

The tissues of the CNS have extra protection in that they are not exposed to blood or the immune system in the same way as other tissues. The blood vessels that supply the brain with nutrients and other chemical substances lie on top of the pia mater. The capillaries associated with these blood vessels in the brain are less permeable than those in other locations in the body. The capillary endothelial cells form tight junctions that control the transfer of blood components to the brain. In addition, cranial capillaries have far fewer fenestra (pore-like structures that are sealed by a membrane) and pinocytotic vesicles than other capillaries. As a result, materials in the circulatory system have a very limited ability to interact with the CNS directly. This phenomenon is referred to as the blood-brain barrier.

The blood-brain barrier protects the cerebrospinal fluid from contamination, and can be quite effective at excluding potential microbial pathogens. As a consequence of these defenses, there is no normal microbiota in the cerebrospinal fluid. The blood-brain barrier also inhibits the movement of many drugs into the brain, particularly compounds that are not lipid soluble. This has profound ramifications for treatments involving infections of the CNS, because it is difficult for drugs to cross the blood-brain barrier to interact with pathogens that cause infections.

The spinal cord also has protective structures similar to those surrounding the brain. Within the bones of the vertebrae are meninges of dura mater (sometimes called the dural sheath), arachnoid mater, pia mater, and a blood-spinal cord barrier that controls the transfer of blood components from blood vessels associated with the spinal cord.

To cause an infection in the CNS, pathogens must successfully breach the blood-brain barrier or blood-spinal cord barrier. Various pathogens employ different virulence factors and mechanisms to achieve this, but they can generally be grouped into four categories: intercellular (also called paracellular), transcellular, leukocyte facilitated, and nonhematogenous. Intercellular entry involves the use of microbial virulence factors, toxins, or inflammation-mediated processes to pass between the cells of the blood-brain barrier. In transcellular entry, the pathogen passes through the cells of the blood-brain barrier using virulence factors that allow it to adhere to and trigger uptake by vacuole- or receptor-mediated mechanisms. Leukocyte-facilitated entry is a Trojan-horse mechanism that occurs when a pathogen infects peripheral blood leukocytes to directly enter the CNS. Nonhematogenous entry allows pathogens to enter the brain without encountering the blood-brain barrier; it occurs when pathogens travel along either the olfactory or trigeminal cranial nerves that lead directly into the CNS.

View this video about the blood-brain barrier

Exercise (PageIndex{2})

What is the primary function of the blood-brain barrier?

The Peripheral Nervous System

The PNS is formed of the nerves that connect organs, limbs, and other anatomic structures of the body to the brain and spinal cord. Unlike the brain and spinal cord, the PNS is not protected by bone, meninges, or a blood barrier, and, as a consequence, the nerves of the PNS are much more susceptible to injury and infection. Microbial damage to peripheral nerves can lead to tingling or numbness known as neuropathy. These symptoms can also be produced by trauma and noninfectious causes such as drugs or chronic diseases like diabetes.

The Cells of the Nervous System

Tissues of the PNS and CNS are formed of cells called glial cells (neuroglial cells) and neurons (nerve cells). Glial cells assist in the organization of neurons, provide a scaffold for some aspects of neuronal function, and aid in recovery from neural injury.

Neurons are specialized cells found throughout the nervous system that transmit signals through the nervous system using electrochemical processes. The basic structure of a neuron is shown in Figure (PageIndex{3}). The cell body (or soma) is the metabolic center of the neuron and contains the nucleus and most of the cell’s organelles. The many finely branched extensions from the soma are called dendrites. The soma also produces an elongated extension, called the axon, which is responsible for the transmission of electrochemical signals through elaborate ion transport processes. Axons of some types of neurons can extend up to one meter in length in the human body. To facilitate electrochemical signal transmission, some neurons have a myelin sheath surrounding the axon. Myelin, formed from the cell membranes of glial cells like the Schwann cells in the PNS and oligodendrocytes in the CNS, surrounds and insulates the axon, significantly increasing the speed of electrochemical signal transmission along the axon. The end of an axon forms numerous branches that end in bulbs called synaptic terminals. Neurons form junctions with other cells, such as another neuron, with which they exchange signals. The junctions, which are actually gaps between neurons, are referred to as synapses. At each synapse, there is a presynaptic neuron and a postsynaptic neuron (or other cell). The synaptic terminals of the axon of the presynaptic terminal form the synapse with the dendrites, soma, or sometimes the axon of the postsynaptic neuron, or a part of another type of cell such as a muscle cell. The synaptic terminals contain vesicles filled with chemicals called neurotransmitters. When the electrochemical signal moving down the axon reaches the synapse, the vesicles fuse with the membrane, and neurotransmitters are released, which diffuse across the synapse and bind to receptors on the membrane of the postsynaptic cell, potentially initiating a response in that cell. That response in the postsynaptic cell might include further propagation of an electrochemical signal to transmit information or contraction of a muscle fiber.

Figure (PageIndex{3}): (a) A myelinated neuron is associated with oligodendrocytes. Oligodendrocytes are a type of glial cell that forms the myelin sheath in the CNS that insulates the axon so that electrochemical nerve impulses are transferred more efficiently. (b) A synapse consists of the axonal end of the presynaptic neuron (top) that releases neurotransmitters that cross the synaptic space (or cleft) and bind to receptors on dendrites of the postsynaptic neuron (bottom).

Exercise (PageIndex{3})

  1. What cells are associated with neurons, and what is their function?
  2. What is the structure and function of a synapse?

Meningitis and Encephalitis

Although the skull provides the brain with an excellent defense, it can also become problematic during infections. Any swelling of the brain or meninges that results from inflammation can cause intracranial pressure, leading to severe damage of the brain tissues, which have limited space to expand within the inflexible bones of the skull. The term meningitis is used to describe an inflammation of the meninges. Typical symptoms can include severe headache, fever, photophobia (increased sensitivity to light), stiff neck, convulsions, and confusion. An inflammation of brain tissue is called encephalitis, and patients exhibit signs and symptoms similar to those of meningitis in addition to lethargy, seizures, and personality changes. When inflammation affects both the meninges and the brain tissue, the condition is called meningoencephalitis. All three forms of inflammation are serious and can lead to blindness, deafness, coma, and death.

Meningitis and encephalitis can be caused by many different types of microbial pathogens. However, these conditions can also arise from noninfectious causes such as head trauma, some cancers, and certain drugs that trigger inflammation. To determine whether the inflammation is caused by a pathogen, a lumbar puncture is performed to obtain a sample of CSF. If the CSF contains increased levels of white blood cells and abnormal glucose and protein levels, this indicates that the inflammation is a response to an infectioninflinin.

Exercise (PageIndex{4})

  1. What are the two types of inflammation that can impact the CNS?
  2. Why do both forms of inflammation have such serious consequences?


Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) is a rare condition that can be preceded by a viral or bacterial infection that results in an autoimmune reaction against myelinated nerve cells. The destruction of the myelin sheath around these neurons results in a loss of sensation and function. The first symptoms of this condition are tingling and weakness in the affected tissues. The symptoms intensify over a period of several weeks and can culminate in complete paralysis. Severe cases can be life-threatening. Infections by several different microbial pathogens, including Campylobacter jejuni (the most common risk factor), cytomegalovirus, Epstein-Barr virus, varicella-zoster virus, Mycoplasma pneumoniae,1and Zika virus2 have been identified as triggers for GBS. Anti-myelin antibodies from patients with GBS have been demonstrated to also recognize C. jejuni. It is possible that cross-reactive antibodies, antibodies that react with similar antigenic sites on different proteins, might be formed during an infection and may lead to this autoimmune response.

GBS is solely identified by the appearance of clinical symptoms. There are no other diagnostic tests available. Fortunately, most cases spontaneously resolve within a few months with few permanent effects, as there is no available vaccine. GBS can be treated by plasmapheresis. In this procedure, the patient’s plasma is filtered from their blood, removing autoantibodies.

Key Concepts and Summary

  • The nervous system consists of two subsystems: the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system.
  • The skull and three meninges (the dura mater, arachnoid mater, and pia mater) protect the brain.
  • Tissues of the PNS and CNS are formed of cells called glial cells and neurons.
  • Since the blood-brain barrier excludes most microbes, there is no normal microbiota in the CNS.
  • Some pathogens have specific virulence factors that allow them to breach the blood-brain barrier. Inflammation of the brain or meninges caused by infection is called encephalitis or meningitis, respectively. These conditions can lead to blindness, deafness, coma, and death.


  1. 1 Yuki, Nobuhiro and Hans-Peter Hartung, “Guillain–Barré Syndrome,” New England Journal of Medicine 366, no. 24 (2012): 2294-304.
  2. 2 Cao-Lormeau, Van-Mai, Alexandre Blake, Sandrine Mons, Stéphane Lastère, Claudine Roche, Jessica Vanhomwegen, Timothée Dub et al., “Guillain-Barré Syndrome Outbreak Associated with Zika Virus Infection in French Polynesia: A Case-Control Study,” The Lancet 387, no. 10027 (2016): 1531-9.


  • Nina Parker, (Shenandoah University), Mark Schneegurt (Wichita State University), Anh-Hue Thi Tu (Georgia Southwestern State University), Philip Lister (Central New Mexico Community College), and Brian M. Forster (Saint Joseph’s University) with many contributing authors. Original content via Openstax (CC BY 4.0; Access for free at

Anatomy of the Nervous System

The purpose of the nervous system is to transmit signals between the brain and the rest of the body. The nervous system regulates everything we do, voluntary and involuntary.

Each and every sensory and cognitive function you’re using right now to interpret the information in this article – sight, memory, perhaps even movement, if you’re taking notes – is controlled by the nervous system.

There are two major divisions of the nervous system: the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS).

The central nervous system is made up of the brain, the spinal cord, and the retina and controls essentially all the functions that keep you alive and allow you to experience life.

All sensory processes, regulation of organ systems like the cardiovascular system, and higher cognitive functions are rooted in the CNS.

The function of the peripheral nervous system is, essentially, to receive and distribute information to help the CNS make decisions on how to respond to the surrounding environment.

The Krogan Have Redundant Body Parts, Including Their Nervous System

The Krogan body is geared toward survival and endurance more than anything, and this means having built-in backup parts in case of an emergency. The Krogan body features secondary and sometimes even tertiary organs, including vital ones, in case the main organs are injured or shut down for any reason. If a Krogan is shot in the heart, a second heart will take over to keep the blood pumping, and if a Krogan's liver shuts down, it's time for the backup to shine. This allows Krogan to survive otherwise fatal injuries, whether or not they have access to medi-gel. The redundancy even includes the nervous system itself. As Urdnot Wrex once explained to Shepard, a backup nervous system allows a Krogan to survive serious physical trauma while experiencing minimal pain. Wrex incorrectly thought that Shepard took advantage of a backup nervous system while dying at the hands of the Collectors.

Anatomy and Physiology: The Nervous System

As the other control system, after the endocrine, the nervous system carries a great burden. It must be able to make rapid changes in the body and regulate the environment at all times. Not content to borrow the pathways of the cardiovascular system, the nervous system has its own elaborate pathways, often running roughly parallel to the blood vessels.

The response is so fast that there is no appreciable difference in reaction time, regardless of height. The great distances the messages often travel require certain tricks to speed up the nerve impulse. Time savers, such as which messages need to go all the way to the brain and which don't (such as reflexes), are part of the solution. These topics and more are discussed in this section.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Anatomy and Physiology 2004 by Michael J. Vieira Lazaroff. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Anatomy of the Brain

The brain is the part of the central nervous system that is contained in the cranial cavity of the skull. It floats in a fluid called cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which is filtered from arterial blood. CSF acts as a cushion and shock absorber, and makes the brain neutrally boyant. Ependymal cells (remember those?) help circulate the CSF to distribute and exchange chemical substances throughout the brain and into the spinal cord. The ependymal cells line the fluid-filled cavities in the center of the brain, called ventricals, which also contains CSF.

Modified from: John A Beal, PhDDep’t. of Cellular Biology & Anatomy, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center Shreveport – (Internet Archive of file description page), CC BY 2.5,

At the general anatomy level (shown above), the brain is organized with white matter (myelinated axons) toward the inside of the brain, and gray matter (unmyelinated axons and cell bodies) on the outside of the brain. Gray matter represents the information-processing centers of the brain, and white matter represents the networking between these processing centers. These processing centers include (but are not limited to!) the cerebrum and cerebral cortex, the diencephalon, the cerebellum, and the brain stem, further described below.

The vertebrate brain includes the cerebrum, cerebral cortex, diencephalon, cerebellum, and the brain stem. Image credit: OpenStax Biology.

  • The cerebrum and cerebral cortex make up the majority of the human brain. The outermost part of the cerebrum is a thick piece of nervous system tissue called the cerebral cortex , which is folded into hills called gyri (singular: gyrus) and valleys called sulci (singular: sulcus). The cortex is made up of two hemispheres (right and left) and four lobes (frontal, parietal, temporal, occipital). The two hemispheres are joined by a thick fiber bundle called the corpus callosum (Latin: “tough body”) which connects the two hemispheres and allows information to be passed from one side to the other. Although there are some brain functions that are localized more to one hemisphere than the other, the functions of the two hemispheres are largely redundant.
  • The diencephalon controls homeostasis and acts as a relay station, transmitting sensory information from from sensory neurons to the cerebrum. The structures located in the diencephalon that regulate these processes include the thalamus and the hypothalamus. The thalamus (Greek for “inner chamber”) acts as a gateway to and from the cortex. It receives sensory and motor inputs from the body and also receives feedback from the cortex, and helps regulate consciousness, arousal, and sleep states. Below the thalamus is the hypothalamus , which controls the endocrine system by sending signals to the pituitary gland, a pea-sized endocrine gland that releases several different hormones that affect other glands as well as other cells. This relationship means that the hypothalamus regulates important behaviors that are controlled by these hormones. The hypothalamus is the body’s “thermostat” (think negative feedback loop) it makes sure key functions like food and water intake, energy expenditure, and body temperature are kept at appropriate levels. Neurons within the hypothalamus also regulate circadian rhythms, sometimes called sleep cycles.
  • The cerebellum (Latin for “little brain”) sits at the base of the brain on top of the brainstem. The cerebellum controls balance and aids in coordinating complex movements and learning new motor tasks.
  • The brainstem connects the rest of the brain with the spinal cord. Motor and sensory neurons extend through the brainstem allowing for the relay of signals between the brain and spinal cord. The brainstem controls several important functions of the body including alertness, arousal, breathing, blood pressure, digestion, heart rate, swallowing, walking, and sensory and motor information integration.

Each cortical hemisphere of the cerebrum contains regions called lobes that are involved in different functions, and include the frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital lobes:

Sagittal, or side view of the human brain shows the different lobes of the cerebral cortex. The frontal lobe is at the front center of the brain. The parietal lobe is at the top back part of the brain. The occipital lobe is at the back of the brain, and the temporal lobe is at the bottom center of the brain. The motor cortex is the back of the frontal lobe, and the olfactory bulb is the bottom part. The somatosensory cortex is the front part of the parietal lobe. The brainstem is beneath the temporal lobe, and the cerebellum is beneath the occipital lobe. Image credit: OpenStax Biology

The human cerebral cortex can be further subdivided into four lobes, each of which specializes in different functions:

  • The frontal lobe is located at the front of the brain, over the eyes. This lobe contains the olfactory bulb, which processes smells. The frontal lobe also contains the motor cortex, which is important for planning and implementing movement. Neurons in the frontal lobe also control cognitive functions like maintaining attention, speech, and decision-making, and parts of this area are involved in personality, socialization, and assessing risk.
  • The parietal lobe is located at the top of the brain. Neurons in the parietal lobe are involved in speech and also reading. Two of the parietal lobe’s main functions are processing somatosensation ( touch sensations like pressure, pain, heat, cold) and processing proprioception ( the sense of how parts of the body are oriented in space).
  • The occipital lobe is located at the back of the brain. It is primarily involved in vision: seeing, recognizing, and identifying the visual world. Sensory neurons transmit information from the eyes at the front of the skull to the occipital lobe at the back of the brain via the occipital nerve.
  • The temporal lobe is located at the base of the brain by your ears and is primarily involved in processing and interpreting sounds. It also contains the hippocampus (Greek for “seahorse”) a structure that processes memory formation and is critical for learning.

Compared to other vertebrates, mammals have exceptionally large brains for their body size. An entire alligator’s brain, for example, would fill about one and a half teaspoons. This increase in brain to body size ratio is especially pronounced in apes, whales, and dolphins. While this increase in overall brain size doubtlessly played a role in the evolution of complex behaviors unique to mammals, it does not tell the whole story. Scientists have found a relationship between the relatively high surface area of the cortex and the intelligence and complex social behaviors exhibited by some mammals. This increased surface area is due, in part, to increased folding of the cortical sheet (more sulci and gyri). For example, a rat cortex is very smooth with very few sulci and gyri. Cat and sheep cortices have more sulci and gyri. Chimps, humans, and dolphins have even more.

Mammals have larger brain-to-body ratios than other vertebrates. Within mammals, increased cortical folding and surface area is correlated with complex behavior. Image credit: OpenStax Biology.

This video provides a summary of the functions of different parts of the vertebrate brain (watch the first four minutes):

Neurons contain the same cellular components as other body cells. The central cell body is the process part of a neuron and contains the neuron's nucleus, associated cytoplasm, organelles, and other cell structures. The cell body produces proteins needed for the construction of other parts of the neuron.

Nerve processes are "finger-like" projections from the cell body that are able to conduct and transmit signals. There are two types:

  • Axons typically carry signals away from the cell body. They are long nerve processes that may branch out to convey signals to various areas. Some axons are wrapped in an insulating coat of glial cells called oligodendrocytes and Schwann cells. These cells form the myelin sheath which indirectly assists in the conduction of impulses as myelinated nerves can conduct impulses quicker than unmyelinated ones. Gaps between the myelin sheath are called Nodes of Ranvier. Axons end at junctions known as synapses.
  • Dendrites typically carry signals toward the cell body. Dendrites are usually more numerous, shorter, and more branched than axons. They have many synapses in order to receive signal messages from nearby neurons.


The nervous system derives its name from nerves, which are cylindrical bundles of fibers (the axons of neurons), that emanate from the brain and spinal cord, and branch repeatedly to innervate every part of the body. [4] Nerves are large enough to have been recognized by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, [5] but their internal structure was not understood until it became possible to examine them using a microscope. [6] The author Michael Nikoletseas wrote: [7]

"It is difficult to believe that until approximately year 1900 it was not known that neurons are the basic units of the brain (Santiago Ramón y Cajal). Equally surprising is the fact that the concept of chemical transmission in the brain was not known until around 1930 (Henry Hallett Dale and Otto Loewi). We began to understand the basic electrical phenomenon that neurons use in order to communicate among themselves, the action potential, in the 1950s (Alan Lloyd Hodgkin, Andrew Huxley and John Eccles). It was in the 1960s that we became aware of how basic neuronal networks code stimuli and thus basic concepts are possible (David H. Hubel and Torsten Wiesel). The molecular revolution swept across US universities in the 1980s. It was in the 1990s that molecular mechanisms of behavioral phenomena became widely known (Eric Richard Kandel)."

A microscopic examination shows that nerves consist primarily of axons, along with different membranes that wrap around them and segregate them into fascicles. The neurons that give rise to nerves do not lie entirely within the nerves themselves—their cell bodies reside within the brain, spinal cord, or peripheral ganglia. [4]

All animals more advanced than sponges have nervous systems. However, even sponges, unicellular animals, and non-animals such as slime molds have cell-to-cell signalling mechanisms that are precursors to those of neurons. [8] In radially symmetric animals such as the jellyfish and hydra, the nervous system consists of a nerve net, a diffuse network of isolated cells. [9] In bilaterian animals, which make up the great majority of existing species, the nervous system has a common structure that originated early in the Ediacaran period, over 550 million years ago. [10] [11]


The nervous system contains two main categories or types of cells: neurons and glial cells.


The nervous system is defined by the presence of a special type of cell—the neuron (sometimes called "neurone" or "nerve cell"). [4] Neurons can be distinguished from other cells in a number of ways, but their most fundamental property is that they communicate with other cells via synapses, which are membrane-to-membrane junctions containing molecular machinery that allows rapid transmission of signals, either electrical or chemical. [4] Many types of neuron possess an axon, a protoplasmic protrusion that can extend to distant parts of the body and make thousands of synaptic contacts [12] axons typically extend throughout the body in bundles called nerves.

Even in the nervous system of a single species such as humans, hundreds of different types of neurons exist, with a wide variety of morphologies and functions. [12] These include sensory neurons that transmute physical stimuli such as light and sound into neural signals, and motor neurons that transmute neural signals into activation of muscles or glands however in many species the great majority of neurons participate in the formation of centralized structures (the brain and ganglia) and they receive all of their input from other neurons and send their output to other neurons. [4]

Glial cells

Glial cells (named from the Greek for "glue") are non-neuronal cells that provide support and nutrition, maintain homeostasis, form myelin, and participate in signal transmission in the nervous system. [13] In the human brain, it is estimated that the total number of glia roughly equals the number of neurons, although the proportions vary in different brain areas. [14] Among the most important functions of glial cells are to support neurons and hold them in place to supply nutrients to neurons to insulate neurons electrically to destroy pathogens and remove dead neurons and to provide guidance cues directing the axons of neurons to their targets. [13] A very important type of glial cell (oligodendrocytes in the central nervous system, and Schwann cells in the peripheral nervous system) generates layers of a fatty substance called myelin that wraps around axons and provides electrical insulation which allows them to transmit action potentials much more rapidly and efficiently. Recent findings indicate that glial cells, such as microglia and astrocytes, serve as important resident immune cells within the central nervous system.

Anatomy in vertebrates

The nervous system of vertebrates (including humans) is divided into the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). [15]

The (CNS) is the major division, and consists of the brain and the spinal cord. [15] The spinal canal contains the spinal cord, while the cranial cavity contains the brain. The CNS is enclosed and protected by the meninges, a three-layered system of membranes, including a tough, leathery outer layer called the dura mater. The brain is also protected by the skull, and the spinal cord by the vertebrae.

The peripheral nervous system (PNS) is a collective term for the nervous system structures that do not lie within the CNS. [16] The large majority of the axon bundles called nerves are considered to belong to the PNS, even when the cell bodies of the neurons to which they belong reside within the brain or spinal cord. The PNS is divided into somatic and visceral parts. The somatic part consists of the nerves that innervate the skin, joints, and muscles. The cell bodies of somatic sensory neurons lie in dorsal root ganglia of the spinal cord. The visceral part, also known as the autonomic nervous system, contains neurons that innervate the internal organs, blood vessels, and glands. The autonomic nervous system itself consists of two parts: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Some authors also include sensory neurons whose cell bodies lie in the periphery (for senses such as hearing) as part of the PNS others, however, omit them. [17]

The vertebrate nervous system can also be divided into areas called gray matter and white matter. [18] Gray matter (which is only gray in preserved tissue, and is better described as pink or light brown in living tissue) contains a high proportion of cell bodies of neurons. White matter is composed mainly of myelinated axons, and takes its color from the myelin. White matter includes all of the nerves, and much of the interior of the brain and spinal cord. Gray matter is found in clusters of neurons in the brain and spinal cord, and in cortical layers that line their surfaces. There is an anatomical convention that a cluster of neurons in the brain or spinal cord is called a nucleus, whereas a cluster of neurons in the periphery is called a ganglion. [19] There are, however, a few exceptions to this rule, notably including the part of the forebrain called the basal ganglia. [20]

Comparative anatomy and evolution

Neural precursors in sponges

Sponges have no cells connected to each other by synaptic junctions, that is, no neurons, and therefore no nervous system. They do, however, have homologs of many genes that play key roles in synaptic function. Recent studies have shown that sponge cells express a group of proteins that cluster together to form a structure resembling a postsynaptic density (the signal-receiving part of a synapse). [8] However, the function of this structure is currently unclear. Although sponge cells do not show synaptic transmission, they do communicate with each other via calcium waves and other impulses, which mediate some simple actions such as whole-body contraction. [21]


Jellyfish, comb jellies, and related animals have diffuse nerve nets rather than a central nervous system. In most jellyfish the nerve net is spread more or less evenly across the body in comb jellies it is concentrated near the mouth. The nerve nets consist of sensory neurons, which pick up chemical, tactile, and visual signals motor neurons, which can activate contractions of the body wall and intermediate neurons, which detect patterns of activity in the sensory neurons and, in response, send signals to groups of motor neurons. In some cases groups of intermediate neurons are clustered into discrete ganglia. [9]

The development of the nervous system in radiata is relatively unstructured. Unlike bilaterians, radiata only have two primordial cell layers, endoderm and ectoderm. Neurons are generated from a special set of ectodermal precursor cells, which also serve as precursors for every other ectodermal cell type. [22]


The vast majority of existing animals are bilaterians, meaning animals with left and right sides that are approximate mirror images of each other. All bilateria are thought to have descended from a common wormlike ancestor that appeared in the Ediacaran period, 550–600 million years ago. [10] The fundamental bilaterian body form is a tube with a hollow gut cavity running from mouth to anus, and a nerve cord with an enlargement (a "ganglion") for each body segment, with an especially large ganglion at the front, called the "brain".

Even mammals, including humans, show the segmented bilaterian body plan at the level of the nervous system. The spinal cord contains a series of segmental ganglia, each giving rise to motor and sensory nerves that innervate a portion of the body surface and underlying musculature. On the limbs, the layout of the innervation pattern is complex, but on the trunk it gives rise to a series of narrow bands. The top three segments belong to the brain, giving rise to the forebrain, midbrain, and hindbrain. [23]

Bilaterians can be divided, based on events that occur very early in embryonic development, into two groups (superphyla) called protostomes and deuterostomes. [24] Deuterostomes include vertebrates as well as echinoderms, hemichordates (mainly acorn worms), and Xenoturbellidans. [25] Protostomes, the more diverse group, include arthropods, molluscs, and numerous types of worms. There is a basic difference between the two groups in the placement of the nervous system within the body: protostomes possess a nerve cord on the ventral (usually bottom) side of the body, whereas in deuterostomes the nerve cord is on the dorsal (usually top) side. In fact, numerous aspects of the body are inverted between the two groups, including the expression patterns of several genes that show dorsal-to-ventral gradients. Most anatomists now consider that the bodies of protostomes and deuterostomes are "flipped over" with respect to each other, a hypothesis that was first proposed by Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire for insects in comparison to vertebrates. Thus insects, for example, have nerve cords that run along the ventral midline of the body, while all vertebrates have spinal cords that run along the dorsal midline. [26]


Worms are the simplest bilaterian animals, and reveal the basic structure of the bilaterian nervous system in the most straightforward way. As an example, earthworms have dual nerve cords running along the length of the body and merging at the tail and the mouth. These nerve cords are connected by transverse nerves like the rungs of a ladder. These transverse nerves help coordinate the two sides of the animal. Two ganglia at the head (the "nerve ring") end function similar to a simple brain. Photoreceptors on the animal's eyespots provide sensory information on light and dark. [27]

The nervous system of one very small roundworm, the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, has been completely mapped out in a connectome including its synapses. Every neuron and its cellular lineage has been recorded and most, if not all, of the neural connections are known. In this species, the nervous system is sexually dimorphic the nervous systems of the two sexes, males and female hermaphrodites, have different numbers of neurons and groups of neurons that perform sex-specific functions. In C. elegans, males have exactly 383 neurons, while hermaphrodites have exactly 302 neurons. [28]


Arthropods, such as insects and crustaceans, have a nervous system made up of a series of ganglia, connected by a ventral nerve cord made up of two parallel connectives running along the length of the belly. [29] Typically, each body segment has one ganglion on each side, though some ganglia are fused to form the brain and other large ganglia. The head segment contains the brain, also known as the supraesophageal ganglion. In the insect nervous system, the brain is anatomically divided into the protocerebrum, deutocerebrum, and tritocerebrum. Immediately behind the brain is the subesophageal ganglion, which is composed of three pairs of fused ganglia. It controls the mouthparts, the salivary glands and certain muscles. Many arthropods have well-developed sensory organs, including compound eyes for vision and antennae for olfaction and pheromone sensation. The sensory information from these organs is processed by the brain.

In insects, many neurons have cell bodies that are positioned at the edge of the brain and are electrically passive—the cell bodies serve only to provide metabolic support and do not participate in signalling. A protoplasmic fiber runs from the cell body and branches profusely, with some parts transmitting signals and other parts receiving signals. Thus, most parts of the insect brain have passive cell bodies arranged around the periphery, while the neural signal processing takes place in a tangle of protoplasmic fibers called neuropil, in the interior. [30]

"Identified" neurons

A neuron is called identified if it has properties that distinguish it from every other neuron in the same animal—properties such as location, neurotransmitter, gene expression pattern, and connectivity—and if every individual organism belonging to the same species has one and only one neuron with the same set of properties. [31] In vertebrate nervous systems very few neurons are "identified" in this sense—in humans, there are believed to be none—but in simpler nervous systems, some or all neurons may be thus unique. In the roundworm C. elegans, whose nervous system is the most thoroughly described of any animal's, every neuron in the body is uniquely identifiable, with the same location and the same connections in every individual worm. One notable consequence of this fact is that the form of the C. elegans nervous system is completely specified by the genome, with no experience-dependent plasticity. [28]

The brains of many molluscs and insects also contain substantial numbers of identified neurons. [31] In vertebrates, the best known identified neurons are the gigantic Mauthner cells of fish. [32] Every fish has two Mauthner cells, in the bottom part of the brainstem, one on the left side and one on the right. Each Mauthner cell has an axon that crosses over, innervating neurons at the same brain level and then travelling down through the spinal cord, making numerous connections as it goes. The synapses generated by a Mauthner cell are so powerful that a single action potential gives rise to a major behavioral response: within milliseconds the fish curves its body into a C-shape, then straightens, thereby propelling itself rapidly forward. Functionally this is a fast escape response, triggered most easily by a strong sound wave or pressure wave impinging on the lateral line organ of the fish. Mauthner cells are not the only identified neurons in fish—there are about 20 more types, including pairs of "Mauthner cell analogs" in each spinal segmental nucleus. Although a Mauthner cell is capable of bringing about an escape response individually, in the context of ordinary behavior other types of cells usually contribute to shaping the amplitude and direction of the response.

Mauthner cells have been described as command neurons. A command neuron is a special type of identified neuron, defined as a neuron that is capable of driving a specific behavior individually. [33] Such neurons appear most commonly in the fast escape systems of various species—the squid giant axon and squid giant synapse, used for pioneering experiments in neurophysiology because of their enormous size, both participate in the fast escape circuit of the squid. The concept of a command neuron has, however, become controversial, because of studies showing that some neurons that initially appeared to fit the description were really only capable of evoking a response in a limited set of circumstances. [34]

At the most basic level, the function of the nervous system is to send signals from one cell to others, or from one part of the body to others. There are multiple ways that a cell can send signals to other cells. One is by releasing chemicals called hormones into the internal circulation, so that they can diffuse to distant sites. In contrast to this "broadcast" mode of signaling, the nervous system provides "point-to-point" signals—neurons project their axons to specific target areas and make synaptic connections with specific target cells. [35] Thus, neural signaling is capable of a much higher level of specificity than hormonal signaling. It is also much faster: the fastest nerve signals travel at speeds that exceed 100 meters per second.

At a more integrative level, the primary function of the nervous system is to control the body. [4] It does this by extracting information from the environment using sensory receptors, sending signals that encode this information into the central nervous system, processing the information to determine an appropriate response, and sending output signals to muscles or glands to activate the response. The evolution of a complex nervous system has made it possible for various animal species to have advanced perception abilities such as vision, complex social interactions, rapid coordination of organ systems, and integrated processing of concurrent signals. In humans, the sophistication of the nervous system makes it possible to have language, abstract representation of concepts, transmission of culture, and many other features of human society that would not exist without the human brain.

Neurons and synapses

Most neurons send signals via their axons, although some types are capable of dendrite-to-dendrite communication. (In fact, the types of neurons called amacrine cells have no axons, and communicate only via their dendrites.) Neural signals propagate along an axon in the form of electrochemical waves called action potentials, which produce cell-to-cell signals at points where axon terminals make synaptic contact with other cells. [36]

Synapses may be electrical or chemical. Electrical synapses make direct electrical connections between neurons, [37] but chemical synapses are much more common, and much more diverse in function. [38] At a chemical synapse, the cell that sends signals is called presynaptic, and the cell that receives signals is called postsynaptic. Both the presynaptic and postsynaptic areas are full of molecular machinery that carries out the signalling process. The presynaptic area contains large numbers of tiny spherical vessels called synaptic vesicles, packed with neurotransmitter chemicals. [36] When the presynaptic terminal is electrically stimulated, an array of molecules embedded in the membrane are activated, and cause the contents of the vesicles to be released into the narrow space between the presynaptic and postsynaptic membranes, called the synaptic cleft. The neurotransmitter then binds to receptors embedded in the postsynaptic membrane, causing them to enter an activated state. [38] Depending on the type of receptor, the resulting effect on the postsynaptic cell may be excitatory, inhibitory, or modulatory in more complex ways. For example, release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine at a synaptic contact between a motor neuron and a muscle cell induces rapid contraction of the muscle cell. [39] The entire synaptic transmission process takes only a fraction of a millisecond, although the effects on the postsynaptic cell may last much longer (even indefinitely, in cases where the synaptic signal leads to the formation of a memory trace). [12]

There are literally hundreds of different types of synapses. In fact, there are over a hundred known neurotransmitters, and many of them have multiple types of receptors. [40] Many synapses use more than one neurotransmitter—a common arrangement is for a synapse to use one fast-acting small-molecule neurotransmitter such as glutamate or GABA, along with one or more peptide neurotransmitters that play slower-acting modulatory roles. Molecular neuroscientists generally divide receptors into two broad groups: chemically gated ion channels and second messenger systems. When a chemically gated ion channel is activated, it forms a passage that allows specific types of ions to flow across the membrane. Depending on the type of ion, the effect on the target cell may be excitatory or inhibitory. When a second messenger system is activated, it starts a cascade of molecular interactions inside the target cell, which may ultimately produce a wide variety of complex effects, such as increasing or decreasing the sensitivity of the cell to stimuli, or even altering gene transcription.

According to a rule called Dale's principle, which has only a few known exceptions, a neuron releases the same neurotransmitters at all of its synapses. [41] This does not mean, though, that a neuron exerts the same effect on all of its targets, because the effect of a synapse depends not on the neurotransmitter, but on the receptors that it activates. [38] Because different targets can (and frequently do) use different types of receptors, it is possible for a neuron to have excitatory effects on one set of target cells, inhibitory effects on others, and complex modulatory effects on others still. Nevertheless, it happens that the two most widely used neurotransmitters, glutamate and GABA, each have largely consistent effects. Glutamate has several widely occurring types of receptors, but all of them are excitatory or modulatory. Similarly, GABA has several widely occurring receptor types, but all of them are inhibitory. [42] Because of this consistency, glutamatergic cells are frequently referred to as "excitatory neurons", and GABAergic cells as "inhibitory neurons". Strictly speaking, this is an abuse of terminology—it is the receptors that are excitatory and inhibitory, not the neurons—but it is commonly seen even in scholarly publications.

One very important subset of synapses are capable of forming memory traces by means of long-lasting activity-dependent changes in synaptic strength. [43] The best-known form of neural memory is a process called long-term potentiation (abbreviated LTP), which operates at synapses that use the neurotransmitter glutamate acting on a special type of receptor known as the NMDA receptor. [44] The NMDA receptor has an "associative" property: if the two cells involved in the synapse are both activated at approximately the same time, a channel opens that permits calcium to flow into the target cell. [45] The calcium entry initiates a second messenger cascade that ultimately leads to an increase in the number of glutamate receptors in the target cell, thereby increasing the effective strength of the synapse. This change in strength can last for weeks or longer. Since the discovery of LTP in 1973, many other types of synaptic memory traces have been found, involving increases or decreases in synaptic strength that are induced by varying conditions, and last for variable periods of time. [44] The reward system, that reinforces desired behaviour for example, depends on a variant form of LTP that is conditioned on an extra input coming from a reward-signalling pathway that uses dopamine as neurotransmitter. [46] All these forms of synaptic modifiability, taken collectively, give rise to neural plasticity, that is, to a capability for the nervous system to adapt itself to variations in the environment.

Neural circuits and systems

The basic neuronal function of sending signals to other cells includes a capability for neurons to exchange signals with each other. Networks formed by interconnected groups of neurons are capable of a wide variety of functions, including feature detection, pattern generation and timing, [47] and there are seen to be countless types of information processing possible. Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts showed in 1943 that even artificial neural networks formed from a greatly simplified mathematical abstraction of a neuron are capable of universal computation. [48]

Historically, for many years the predominant view of the function of the nervous system was as a stimulus-response associator. [49] In this conception, neural processing begins with stimuli that activate sensory neurons, producing signals that propagate through chains of connections in the spinal cord and brain, giving rise eventually to activation of motor neurons and thereby to muscle contraction, i.e., to overt responses. Descartes believed that all of the behaviors of animals, and most of the behaviors of humans, could be explained in terms of stimulus-response circuits, although he also believed that higher cognitive functions such as language were not capable of being explained mechanistically. [50] Charles Sherrington, in his influential 1906 book The Integrative Action of the Nervous System, [49] developed the concept of stimulus-response mechanisms in much more detail, and Behaviorism, the school of thought that dominated Psychology through the middle of the 20th century, attempted to explain every aspect of human behavior in stimulus-response terms. [51]

However, experimental studies of electrophysiology, beginning in the early 20th century and reaching high productivity by the 1940s, showed that the nervous system contains many mechanisms for maintaining cell excitability and generating patterns of activity intrinsically, without requiring an external stimulus. [52] Neurons were found to be capable of producing regular sequences of action potentials, or sequences of bursts, even in complete isolation. [53] When intrinsically active neurons are connected to each other in complex circuits, the possibilities for generating intricate temporal patterns become far more extensive. [47] A modern conception views the function of the nervous system partly in terms of stimulus-response chains, and partly in terms of intrinsically generated activity patterns—both types of activity interact with each other to generate the full repertoire of behavior. [54]

Reflexes and other stimulus-response circuits

The simplest type of neural circuit is a reflex arc, which begins with a sensory input and ends with a motor output, passing through a sequence of neurons connected in series. [55] This can be shown in the "withdrawal reflex" causing a hand to jerk back after a hot stove is touched. The circuit begins with sensory receptors in the skin that are activated by harmful levels of heat: a special type of molecular structure embedded in the membrane causes heat to change the electrical field across the membrane. If the change in electrical potential is large enough to pass the given threshold, it evokes an action potential, which is transmitted along the axon of the receptor cell, into the spinal cord. There the axon makes excitatory synaptic contacts with other cells, some of which project (send axonal output) to the same region of the spinal cord, others projecting into the brain. One target is a set of spinal interneurons that project to motor neurons controlling the arm muscles. The interneurons excite the motor neurons, and if the excitation is strong enough, some of the motor neurons generate action potentials, which travel down their axons to the point where they make excitatory synaptic contacts with muscle cells. The excitatory signals induce contraction of the muscle cells, which causes the joint angles in the arm to change, pulling the arm away.

In reality, this straightforward schema is subject to numerous complications. [55] Although for the simplest reflexes there are short neural paths from sensory neuron to motor neuron, there are also other nearby neurons that participate in the circuit and modulate the response. Furthermore, there are projections from the brain to the spinal cord that are capable of enhancing or inhibiting the reflex.

Although the simplest reflexes may be mediated by circuits lying entirely within the spinal cord, more complex responses rely on signal processing in the brain. [56] For example, when an object in the periphery of the visual field moves, and a person looks toward it many stages of signal processing are initiated. The initial sensory response, in the retina of the eye, and the final motor response, in the oculomotor nuclei of the brain stem, are not all that different from those in a simple reflex, but the intermediate stages are completely different. Instead of a one or two step chain of processing, the visual signals pass through perhaps a dozen stages of integration, involving the thalamus, cerebral cortex, basal ganglia, superior colliculus, cerebellum, and several brainstem nuclei. These areas perform signal-processing functions that include feature detection, perceptual analysis, memory recall, decision-making, and motor planning. [57]

Feature detection is the ability to extract biologically relevant information from combinations of sensory signals. [58] In the visual system, for example, sensory receptors in the retina of the eye are only individually capable of detecting "points of light" in the outside world. [59] Second-level visual neurons receive input from groups of primary receptors, higher-level neurons receive input from groups of second-level neurons, and so on, forming a hierarchy of processing stages. At each stage, important information is extracted from the signal ensemble and unimportant information is discarded. By the end of the process, input signals representing "points of light" have been transformed into a neural representation of objects in the surrounding world and their properties. The most sophisticated sensory processing occurs inside the brain, but complex feature extraction also takes place in the spinal cord and in peripheral sensory organs such as the retina.

Intrinsic pattern generation

Although stimulus-response mechanisms are the easiest to understand, the nervous system is also capable of controlling the body in ways that do not require an external stimulus, by means of internally generated rhythms of activity. Because of the variety of voltage-sensitive ion channels that can be embedded in the membrane of a neuron, many types of neurons are capable, even in isolation, of generating rhythmic sequences of action potentials, or rhythmic alternations between high-rate bursting and quiescence. When neurons that are intrinsically rhythmic are connected to each other by excitatory or inhibitory synapses, the resulting networks are capable of a wide variety of dynamical behaviors, including attractor dynamics, periodicity, and even chaos. A network of neurons that uses its internal structure to generate temporally structured output, without requiring a corresponding temporally structured stimulus, is called a central pattern generator.

Internal pattern generation operates on a wide range of time scales, from milliseconds to hours or longer. One of the most important types of temporal pattern is circadian rhythmicity—that is, rhythmicity with a period of approximately 24 hours. All animals that have been studied show circadian fluctuations in neural activity, which control circadian alternations in behavior such as the sleep-wake cycle. Experimental studies dating from the 1990s have shown that circadian rhythms are generated by a "genetic clock" consisting of a special set of genes whose expression level rises and falls over the course of the day. Animals as diverse as insects and vertebrates share a similar genetic clock system. The circadian clock is influenced by light but continues to operate even when light levels are held constant and no other external time-of-day cues are available. The clock genes are expressed in many parts of the nervous system as well as many peripheral organs, but in mammals, all of these "tissue clocks" are kept in synchrony by signals that emanate from a master timekeeper in a tiny part of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus.

Mirror neurons

A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. [60] [61] [62] Thus, the neuron "mirrors" the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. Such neurons have been directly observed in primate species. [63] Birds have been shown to have imitative resonance behaviors and neurological evidence suggests the presence of some form of mirroring system. [63] [64] In humans, brain activity consistent with that of mirror neurons has been found in the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area, the primary somatosensory cortex and the inferior parietal cortex. [65] The function of the mirror system is a subject of much speculation. Many researchers in cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology consider that this system provides the physiological mechanism for the perception/action coupling (see the common coding theory). [62] They argue that mirror neurons may be important for understanding the actions of other people, and for learning new skills by imitation. Some researchers also speculate that mirror systems may simulate observed actions, and thus contribute to theory of mind skills, [66] [67] while others relate mirror neurons to language abilities. [68] However, to date, no widely accepted neural or computational models have been put forward to describe how mirror neuron activity supports cognitive functions such as imitation. [69] There are neuroscientists who caution that the claims being made for the role of mirror neurons are not supported by adequate research. [70] [71]

In vertebrates, landmarks of embryonic neural development include the birth and differentiation of neurons from stem cell precursors, the migration of immature neurons from their birthplaces in the embryo to their final positions, outgrowth of axons from neurons and guidance of the motile growth cone through the embryo towards postsynaptic partners, the generation of synapses between these axons and their postsynaptic partners, and finally the lifelong changes in synapses which are thought to underlie learning and memory. [72]

All bilaterian animals at an early stage of development form a gastrula, which is polarized, with one end called the animal pole and the other the vegetal pole. The gastrula has the shape of a disk with three layers of cells, an inner layer called the endoderm, which gives rise to the lining of most internal organs, a middle layer called the mesoderm, which gives rise to the bones and muscles, and an outer layer called the ectoderm, which gives rise to the skin and nervous system. [73]

Overview of the Nervous System

The nervous system has two distinct parts: the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system (the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord).

The basic unit of the nervous system is the nerve cell (neuron). Nerve cells consist of a large cell body and two types of nerve fibers:

Axon: A long, slender nerve fiber that projects from a nerve cell and can send messages as electrical impulses to other nerve cells and muscles

Dendrites: Branches of nerve cells that receive electrical impulses

Normally, nerves transmit impulses electrically in one direction—from the impulse-sending axon of one nerve cell (also called a neuron) to the impulse-receiving dendrites of the next nerve cell. At contact points between nerve cells, (synapses), the axon secretes tiny amounts of chemical messengers (neurotransmitters). Neurotransmitters trigger the receptors on the next nerve cell dendrites to produce a new electrical current. Different types of nerves use different neurotransmitters to convey impulses across the synapses. Some of the impulses stimulate the next nerve cell, whereas others inhibit it.

The brain and spinal cord also contain support cells called glial cells. These cells are different from nerve cells and do not produce electrical impulses. There are several types, including the following:

Astrocytes: These cells provide nutrients to nerve cells and control the chemical composition of fluids around nerve cells, enabling them to thrive. They can regulate the neurotransmitters and the external chemical environment around nerve cells to influence how often nerve cells send impulses and thus regulate how active groups of nerve cells may be.

Ependymal cells: These cells form along open areas in the brain and spinal cord to create and release cerebrospinal fluid, which bathes cells of the nervous system.

Glial progenitor cells: These cells can produce new astrocytes and oligodendrocytes to replace those destroyed by injuries or disorders. Glial progenitor cells are present throughout the brain in adults.

Microglia: These cells help protect the brain against injury and help remove debris from dead cells. These cells can move around in the nervous system and can multiply to protect the brain during an injury.

Oligodendrocytes: These cells form a coating around nerve cell axons and make a specialized membrane called myelin, a fatty substance that insulates nerve axons and speeds the conduction of impulses along nerve fibers.

Schwann cells are also glial cells. However, these cells are in the peripheral nervous system rather than in the brain and spinal cord. These cells are similar to oligodendrocytes and make myelin to insulate axons in the peripheral nervous system.

The brain and spinal cord consist of gray and white matter.

Gray matter consists of nerve cell bodies, dendrites and axons, glial cells, and capillaries (the smallest of the body’s blood vessels).

White matter contains relatively very few neurons and consists mainly of axons that are wrapped with many layers of myelin and of the oligodendrocytes that make the myelin. Myelin is what makes the white matter white. (The myelin coating around the axon speeds the conduction of nerve impulses—see Nerves.)

Nerve cells routinely increase or decrease the number of connections they have with other nerve cells. This process may partly explain how people learn, adapt, and form memories. But the brain and spinal cord rarely produce new nerve cells. An exception is the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in memory formation.

The nervous system is an extraordinarily complex communication system that can send and receive voluminous amounts of information simultaneously. However, the system is vulnerable to diseases and injuries, as in the following examples:

Oligodendrocytes may become inflamed and lost, causing multiple sclerosis.

Bacteria or viruses can infect the brain or spinal cord, causing encephalitis or meningitis.

A blockage in the blood supply to the brain can cause a stroke.

Injuries or tumors can cause structural damage to the brain or spinal cord.

23.6: Anatomy of the Nervous System - Biology

Figure 1. Human Nervous System. The ability to balance like an acrobat combines functions throughout the nervous system. The central and peripheral divisions coordinate control of the body using the senses of balance, body position, and touch on the soles of the feet. (credit: Rhett Sutphin)

The nervous system is responsible for controlling much of the body, both through somatic (voluntary) and autonomic (involuntary) functions. The structures of the nervous system must be described in detail to understand how many of these functions are possible. There is a physiological concept known as localization of function that states that certain structures are specifically responsible for prescribed functions. It is an underlying concept in all of anatomy and physiology, but the nervous system illustrates the concept very well.

Fresh, unstained nervous tissue can be described as gray or white matter, and within those two types of tissue it can be very hard to see any detail. However, as specific regions and structures have been described, they were related to specific functions. Understanding these structures and the functions they perform requires a detailed description of the anatomy of the nervous system, delving deep into what the central and peripheral structures are.

The place to start this study of the nervous system is the beginning of the individual human life, within the womb. The embryonic development of the nervous system allows for a simple framework on which progressively more complicated structures can be built. With this framework in place, a thorough investigation of the nervous system is possible.



Neurons are highly specialized for the processing and transmission of cellular signals. Given the diversity of functions performed by neurons in different parts of the nervous system, there is, as expected, a wide variety in the shape, size, and electrochemical properties of neurons. For instance, the soma of a neuron can vary in size from 4 to 100 micrometers in diameter.

The soma (cell body) is the central part of the neuron. It contains the nucleus of the cell, and therefore is where most protein synthesis occurs. The nucleus ranges from 3 to 18 micrometers in diameter. The dendrites of a neuron are cellular extensions with many branches, and metaphorically this overall shape and structure is referred to as a dendritic tree. This is where the majority of input to the neuron occurs. However, information outflow (i.e., from dendrites to other neurons) can also occur—except in chemical synapse in which backflow of impulse is inhibited by the fact that axon do not possess chemoreceptors and dendrites cannot secrete neurotransmitter chemical. This explains one way conduction of nerve impulse.

The axon is a finer, cable-like projection which can extend tens, hundreds, or even tens of thousands of times the diameter of the soma in length. The axon carries nerve signals away from the soma (and also carry some types of information back to it). Many neurons have only one axon, but this axon may—and usually will—undergo extensive branching, enabling communication with many target cells.

The part of the axon where it emerges from the soma is called the axon hillock. Besides being an anatomical structure, the axon hillock is also the part of the neuron that has the greatest density of voltage-dependent sodium channels. This makes it the most easily-excited part of the neuron and the spike initiation zone for the axon: in neurological terms it has the greatest hyperpolarized action potential threshold. While the axon and axon hillock are generally involved in information outflow, this region can also receive input from other neurons as well.

The axon terminal is a specialized structure at the end of the axon that is used to release neurotransmitter chemicals and communicate with target neurons. Although the canonical view of the neuron attributes dedicated functions to its various anatomical components, dendrites and axons often act in ways contrary to their so-called main function.

Axons and dendrites in the central nervous system are typically only about a micrometer thick, while some in the peripheral nervous system are much thicker. The soma is usually about 10–25 micrometers in diameter and often is not much larger than the cell nucleus it contains. The longest axon of a human motor neuron can be over a meter long, reaching from the base of the spine to the toes. Sensory neurons have axons that run from the toes to the dorsal columns, over 1.5 meters in adults. Giraffes have single axons several meters in length running along the entire length of their necks. Much of what is known about axonal function comes from studying the squids giant axon, an ideal experimental preparation because of its relatively immense size (0.5–1 millimeters thick, several centimeters long).


Sensory afferent neurons convey information from tissues and organs into the central nervous system. Efferent neurons transmit signals from the central nervous system to the effector cells and are sometimes called motor neurons. Interneurons connect neurons within specific regions of the central nervous system. Afferent and efferent can also refer generally to neurons which, respectively, bring information to or send information from brain region.


Excitatory neurons excite their target postsynaptic neurons or target cells causing it to function. Motor neurons and somatic neurons are all excitatory neurons. Excitatory neurons in the brain are often glutamatergic. Spinal motor neurons, which synapse on muscle cells, use acetylcholine as their neurotransmitter. Inhibitory neurons inhibit their target neurons. Inhibitory neurons are also known as short axon neurons, interneurons or microneurons. The output of some brain structures (neostriatum, globus pallidus, cerebellum) are inhibitory. The primary inhibitory neurotransmitters are GABA and glycine. Modulatory neurons evoke more complex effects termed neuromodulation. These neurons use such neurotransmitters as dopamine, acetylcholine, serotonin and others. Each synapses can receive both excitatory and inhibitory signals and the outcome is determined by the adding up of summation.

Video Review

Watch this video for another introduction to the nervous system. This is the first in a series of nine videos. While you may enjoy all the videos in this series, you are only required to watch the first video.

Watch the video: The Autonomic Nervous System: Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Divisions (January 2022).