The Central Nervous System

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the 3 protective coverings of the brain:  blood-brain barrier, meninges, cerebrospinal fluid
  • Name the major regions of the brain
  • Describe the connections between the cerebrum and brain stem through the diencephalon, and from those regions into the spinal cord
  • Describe the functions of the major regions of the brain
  • Describe the basic anatomy and physiology of the spinal cord

The CNS is crucial to the operation of the body, and any compromise in the brain and spinal cord can lead to severe difficulties.  The function of the tissue in the CNS is crucial to the survival of the organism, so the contents of the blood cannot simply pass into the central nervous tissue. To protect the brain and spinal cord from external injuries due to physical trauma and internal damage caused by the toxins and pathogens that may be traveling through the blood stream, there are various protective structures surrounding the brain and spinal cord.  The cranial bones and vertebrae are obvious structures that protect the nervous tissue of the brain and spinal cord from external trauma.  There are other internal structures, however, that play a large role in protecting and maintaining homeostasis of nervous tissue.  In this section, you will learn about the blood supply to the brain, the meninges, and cerebrospinal fluid.

Blood-brain Barrier

The CNS has a privileged blood supply, and there are multiple routes for blood to get into the CNS, with specializations to protect that blood supply.  As discussed earlier, the neuroglial cells called astrocytes form a barrier between capillaries and neurons within the brain.  Further, the capillaries within the brain are some of the most impermeable capillaries within the body, only allowing the most essential nutrients and minerals to enter the tissue.  These capillaries along with the activity of the astrocytes form the blood-brain barrier.


The outer surface of the CNS is covered by a series of membranes composed of connective tissue called the meninges, which protect the brain. The dura mater is a thick fibrous layer and a strong protective sheath over the entire brain and spinal cord. It is anchored to the inner surface of the cranium and vertebral cavity. The arachnoid mater is a membrane of thin fibrous tissue that forms a loose sac around the CNS. Beneath the arachnoid is a thin, filamentous mesh called the arachnoid trabeculae, which looks like a spider web, giving this layer its name.  Cerebrospinal fluid circulates below the arachnoind mater in an area called the subarachnoid space. Directly adjacent to the surface of the CNS is the pia mater, a thin fibrous membrane that follows the convolutions of gyri and sulci in the cerebral cortex and fits into other grooves and indentations (Figure 8.18).

This image shows a cross-section through the brain. The different meningeal layers are labeled.
Figure 8.18. Meningeal Layers of Superior Sagittal Sinus
The layers of the meninges in the longitudinal fissure of the superior sagittal sinus are shown, with the dura mater adjacent to the inner surface of the cranium, the pia mater adjacent to the surface of the brain, and the arachnoid and subarachnoid space between them. An arachnoid villus is shown emerging into the dural sinus to allow CSF to filter back into the blood for drainage.


Disorders of the Meninges

Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges, the three layers of fibrous membrane that surround the CNS. Meningitis can be caused by infection by bacteria or viruses. The particular pathogens are not special to meningitis; it is just an inflammation of that specific set of tissues from what might be a broader infection. Bacterial meningitis can be caused by StreptococcusStaphylococcus, or the tuberculosis pathogen, among many others. Viral meningitis is usually the result of common enteroviruses (such as those that cause intestinal disorders), but may be the result of the herpes virus or West Nile virus. Bacterial meningitis tends to be more severe. The symptoms associated with meningitis can be fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, light sensitivity, soreness of the neck, or severe headache. More important are the neurological symptoms, such as changes in mental state (confusion, memory deficits, and other dementia-type symptoms). A serious risk of meningitis can be damage to peripheral structures because of the nerves that pass through the meninges. Hearing loss is a common result of meningitis. The primary test for meningitis is a lumbar puncture. A needle inserted into the lumbar region of the spinal column through the dura mater and arachnoid membrane into the subarachnoid space can be used to withdraw the fluid for chemical testing. Fatality occurs in 5 to 40 percent of children and 20 to 50 percent of adults with bacterial meningitis. Treatment of bacterial meningitis is through antibiotics, but viral meningitis cannot be treated with antibiotics because viruses do not respond to that type of drug. Fortunately, the viral forms are milder.

Interactive Link

Watch this video that describes the procedure known as the lumbar puncture, a medical procedure used to sample the CSF. Because of the anatomy of the CNS, it is a relative safe location to insert a needle. Why is the lumbar puncture performed in the lower lumbar area of the vertebral column?

Cerebrospinal Fluid

Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) circulates throughout and around the CNS.  The fluid is a clear solution with a limited amount of the constituents of blood. It is essentially water, small molecules, and electrolytes. Oxygen and carbon dioxide are dissolved into the CSF, as they are in blood, and can diffuse between the fluid and the nervous tissue. In the brain, CSF is produced by special capillaries called the choroid plexus and flows through the nervous tissue of the CNS.  Specifically, CSF circulates to remove metabolic wastes from the interstitial fluids of nervous tissues and return them to the blood stream. The ventricles are the open spaces within the brain where CSF circulates. The CSF circulates through all of the ventricles to eventually emerge into the subarachnoid space where it will be reabsorbed into the blood.  There are four ventricles within the brain.  The first two are named the lateral ventricles and are deep within the cerebrum. The third ventricle is the space between the left and right sides of the diencephalon, which opens into the cerebral aqueduct that passes through the midbrain. The aqueduct opens into the fourth ventricle, which is the space between the cerebellum and the pons and upper medulla (Figure 8.19).

This diagram shows the cross section of the brain and the major parts are labeled. Arrows on the figure show the direction of circulation of the cerebro-spinal fluid.
Figure 8.19. Cerebrospinal Fluid Circulation
The choroid plexus in the four ventricles produce CSF, which is circulated through the ventricular system and then enters the subarachnoid space through the median and lateral apertures. The CSF is then reabsorbed into the blood at the arachnoid granulations, where the arachnoid membrane emerges into the dural sinuses.


Interactive Link

Watch this animation that shows the flow of CSF through the brain and spinal cord, and how it originates from the ventricles and then spreads into the space within the meninges, where the fluids then move into the venous sinuses to return to the cardiovascular circulation. What are the structures that produce CSF and where are they found? How are the structures indicated in this animation?


The Brain

The brain and the spinal cord are the central nervous system, and they represent the main organs of the nervous system. The spinal cord is a single structure, whereas the adult brain is described in terms of four major regions: the cerebrum, the diencephalon, the brain stem, and the cerebellum. A person’s conscious experiences are based on neural activity in the brain. The regulation of homeostasis is governed by a specialized region in the brain. The coordination of reflexes depends on the integration of sensory and motor pathways in the spinal cord.

The Cerebrum

The iconic gray mantle of the human brain, which appears to make up most of the mass of the brain, is the cerebrum (Figure 8.20). The wrinkled portion is the cerebral cortex, and the rest of the structure is beneath that outer covering. There is a large separation between the two sides of the cerebrum called the longitudinal fissure. It separates the cerebrum into two distinct halves, a right and left cerebral hemisphere. Deep within the cerebrum, the white matter of the corpus callosum provides the major pathway for communication between the two hemispheres of the cerebral cortex.

This figure shows the lateral view on the left panel and anterior view on the right panel of the brain. The major parts including the cerebrum are labeled.
Figure 8.20. The Cerebrum
The cerebrum is a large component of the CNS in humans, and the most obvious aspect of it is the folded surface called the cerebral cortex.

Many of the higher neurological functions, such as memory, emotion, and consciousness, are the result of cerebral function.  The cerebrum is covered by an outer area of gray matter called the cerebral cortex. This thin, extensive region of wrinkled gray matter is responsible for the higher functions of the nervous system. A gyrus (plural = gyri) is the ridge of one of those wrinkles, and a sulcus (plural = sulci) is the groove between two gyri. The pattern of these folds of tissue indicates specific regions of the cerebral cortex.  The folding of the cortex maximizes the amount of gray matter in the cranial cavity. The surface of the brain can be mapped on the basis of the locations of large gyri and sulci. Using these landmarks, the cortex can be separated into four major regions, or lobes (Figure 8.19). The lateral sulcus that separates the temporal lobe from the other regions is one such landmark. Superior to the lateral sulcus are the parietal lobe and frontal lobe, which are separated from each other by the central sulcus. The posterior region of the cortex is the occipital lobe, which has no obvious anatomical border between it and the parietal or temporal lobes on the lateral surface of the brain. From the medial surface, an obvious landmark separating the parietal and occipital lobes is called the parieto-occipital sulcus. The fact that there is no obvious anatomical border between these lobes is consistent with the functions of these regions being interrelated.

This figure shows the lateral view of the brain and the major lobes are labeled.
Figure 8.21. Lobes of the Cerebral Cortex
The cerebral cortex is divided into four lobes. Extensive folding increases the surface area available for cerebral functions.

The lobes of the cortex exhibit functional differences. Areas within the occipital lobe are responsible for primary visual perception, 17 and 18 on the Brodmann’s figure below (Fig. 8.20). That visual information is complex, so it is processed in the temporal and parietal lobes as well. The temporal lobe is associated with primary auditory sensation, area 22 on Brodmann’s figure. Because regions of the temporal lobe are part of the limbic system, memory is an important function associated with that lobe also. Structures in the temporal lobe, such as the hippocampus, are responsible for establishing long-term memory, but the ultimate location of those memories is usually in the region in which the sensory perception was processed. The main sensation associated with the parietal lobe is somatosensation, meaning the general sensations associated with the body. Posterior to the central sulcus is the postcentral gyrus, the primary somatosensory cortex, which is identified as Brodmann’s areas 1, 2, and 3. All of the tactile senses are processed in this area, including touch, pressure, tickle, pain, itch, and vibration, as well as more general senses of the body such as proprioception and kinesthesia, which are the senses of body position and movement, respectively. Anterior to the central sulcus is the frontal lobe, which is primarily associated with motor functions. The precentral gyrus is the primary motor cortex. Cells from this region of the cerebral cortex are the upper motor neurons that instruct cells in the spinal cord to move skeletal muscles. Anterior to this region are a few areas that are associated with planned movements. The premotor area is responsible for thinking of a movement to be made. The frontal eye fields are important in eliciting eye movements and in attending to visual stimuli. Broca’s area is responsible for the production of language, or controlling movements responsible for speech; in the vast majority of people, it is located only on the left side. Anterior to these regions is the prefrontal lobe, which serves cognitive functions that can be the basis of personality, short-term memory, and consciousness. The prefrontal lobotomy is an outdated mode of treatment for personality disorders (psychiatric conditions) that profoundly affected the personality of the patient.

In this figure, the Brodmann areas, identifying the functional regions of the brain, are mapped. The left panel shows the lateral surface of the brain and the right panel shows the medial surface.
Figure 8.22. Brodmann’s Areas of the Cerebral Cortex
Brodmann mapping of functionally distinct regions of the cortex was based on its cytoarchitecture at a microscopic level.

Everyday Connections: The Myth of Left Brain/Right Brain

There is a persistent myth that people are “right-brained” or “left-brained,” which is an oversimplification of an important concept about the cerebral hemispheres. There is some lateralization of function, in which the left side of the brain is devoted to language function and the right side is devoted to spatial and nonverbal reasoning. Whereas these functions are predominantly associated with those sides of the brain, there is no monopoly by either side on these functions. Many pervasive functions, such as language, are distributed globally around the cerebrum. Some of the support for this misconception has come from studies of split brains. A drastic way to deal with a rare and devastating neurological condition (intractable epilepsy) is to separate the two hemispheres of the brain. After sectioning the corpus callosum, a split-brained patient will have trouble producing verbal responses on the basis of sensory information processed on the right side of the cerebrum, leading to the idea that the left side is responsible for language function. However, there are well-documented cases of language functions lost from damage to the right side of the brain. The deficits seen in damage to the left side of the brain are classified as aphasia, a loss of speech function; damage on the right side can affect the use of language. Right-side damage can result in a loss of ability to understand figurative aspects of speech, such as jokes, irony, or metaphors. Nonverbal aspects of speech can be affected by damage to the right side, such as facial expression or body language, and right-side damage can lead to a “flat affect” in speech, or a loss of emotional expression in speech—sounding like a robot when talking.

The Diencephalon

The diencephalon is the one region of the adult brain that retains its name from embryologic development. The etymology of the word diencephalon translates to “through brain.” It is the connection between the cerebrum and the rest of the nervous system, with one exception. The rest of the brain, the spinal cord, and the PNS all send information to the cerebrum through the diencephalon. Output from the cerebrum passes through the diencephalon. The single exception is the system associated with olfaction, or the sense of smell, which connects directly with the cerebrum.  The diencephalon is deep beneath the cerebrum and can be described as any region of the brain with “thalamus” in its name. The two major regions of the diencephalon are the thalamus itself and the hypothalamus (Figure 8.23).


The thalamus is a collection of nuclei that relay information between the cerebral cortex and the periphery, spinal cord, or brain stem. All sensory information, except for the sense of smell, passes through the thalamus before processing by the cortex. Axons from the peripheral sensory organs synapse in the thalamus, and thalamic neurons project directly to the cerebrum. It is a requisite synapse in any sensory pathway, except for olfaction. The thalamus does not just pass the information on, it also processes that information. For example, the portion of the thalamus that receives visual information will influence what visual stimuli are important, or what receives attention. The cerebrum also sends information down to the thalamus, which usually communicates motor commands.


Inferior and slightly anterior to the thalamus is the hypothalamus, the other major region of the diencephalon. The hypothalamus is a collection of nuclei that are largely involved in regulating homeostasis. The hypothalamus is the executive region in charge of the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system through its regulation of the anterior pituitary gland. Other parts of the hypothalamus are involved in memory and emotion as part of the limbic system.

This figure shows the location of the thalamus, hypothalamus and pituitary gland in the brain.
Figure 8.23. The Diencephalon
The diencephalon is composed primarily of the thalamus and hypothalamus, which together define the walls of the third ventricle. The thalami are two elongated, ovoid structures on either side of the midline that make contact in the middle. The hypothalamus is inferior and anterior to the thalamus, culminating in a sharp angle to which the pituitary gland is attached.

Brain Stem

The midbrain, pons, and the medulla oblongata are collectively referred to as the brain stem (Figure 8.24). The structure connects the brain to the spinal cord. Attached to the brain stem, but considered a separate region of the adult brain, is the cerebellum. The midbrain coordinates sensory representations of the visual, auditory, and somatosensory perceptual spaces. The pons is the main connection with the cerebellum. The pons and the medulla regulate several crucial functions, including the cardiovascular and respiratory systems and rates. The cranial nerves connect through the brain stem and provide the brain with the sensory input and motor output associated with the head and neck, including most of the special senses. The major ascending and descending pathways between the spinal cord and brain, specifically the cerebrum, pass through the brain stem.

This figure shows the location of the midbrain, pons and the medulla in the brain.
Figure 8.24. The Brain Stem
The brain stem comprises three regions: the midbrain, the pons, and the medulla.


The midbrain is the most superior portion of the barinstem.  It is located posterior to the hypothalamus and superior to the pons.  It contains reflex centers for the head, eye, and body movements in response to visual and auditory stimuli.  For example, reflexively turning the head to hear better or see better is activated by the midbrain.


The word pons comes from the Latin word for bridge. It is visible on the anterior surface of the brain stem as the thick bundle of white matter attached to the cerebellum. The pons is the main connection between the cerebellum and the brain stem. The bridge-like white matter is only the anterior surface of the pons; the gray matter beneath that is a continuation of the tegmentum from the midbrain. Gray matter in the tegmentum region of the pons contains neurons receiving descending input from the cerebrum and thalamus that is sent to the cerebellum.  The pons works closely with the medulla to regulate respiratory activities.


The medulla oblongata is the most inferior portion of the brain, and it’s connecting link with the spinal cord.  It consists of ascending and descending tracts that are entering the brain for sensory integration and exiting the brain for motor responses.  The medulla contains 3 integration centers that are vital for homeostasis:  (1)  the respiratory center that controls the rhythm of breathing and reflexes such as coughing and sneezing  (2) the cardiac control center that regulates the rate and force of hear contractions  (3) the vasomotor center that regulates blood pressure through vasoconstriction of blood vessels and vasodilation of blood vessels.    Another area that spreads throughout the brain stem from the medulla up to the thalamus is the the reticular formation. The reticular formation is responsible for regulating general brain activity and attention.  It is related to sleep and wakefulness.

The Cerebellum

The cerebellum, as the name suggests, is the “little brain.” It is covered in gyri and sulci like the cerebrum, and looks like a miniature version of that part of the brain (Figure 8.25). The cerebellum is largely responsible coordinating the interactions of skeletal muscles.  It controls posture, balance, and muscle coordination during movement.  Descending fibers from the cerebrum have branches that connect to neurons in the pons. Those neurons project into the cerebellum, providing a copy of motor commands sent to the spinal cord.  Sensory information from the periphery, which enters through spinal or cranial nerves, is copied to a nucleus in the medulla known as the inferior olive. Fibers from this nucleus enter the cerebellum and are compared with the descending commands from the cerebrum. If the primary motor cortex of the frontal lobe sends a command down to the spinal cord to initiate walking, a copy of that instruction is sent to the cerebellum. Sensory feedback from the muscles and joints, proprioceptive information about the movements of walking, and sensations of balance are sent to the cerebellum through the inferior olive and the cerebellum compares them. If walking is not coordinated, perhaps because the ground is uneven or a strong wind is blowing, then the cerebellum sends out a corrective command to compensate for the difference between the original cortical command and the sensory feedback.  Damage to the cerebellum may result in a loss of equilibrium, muscle contractions, and muscle tone.

This figure shows the location of the cerebellum in the brain. In the top panel, a lateral view labels the location of the cerebellum and the deep cerebellar white matter. In the bottom panel, a photograph of a brain, with the cerebellum in pink is shown.
Figure 8.25. The Cerebellum
The cerebellum is situated on the posterior surface of the brain stem. Descending input from the cerebellum enters through the large white matter structure of the pons. Ascending input from the periphery and spinal cord enters through the fibers of the inferior olive. Output goes to the midbrain, which sends a descending signal to the spinal cord.

The Spinal Cord

The description of the CNS is concentrated on the structures of the brain, but the spinal cord is another major organ of the system. The spinal cord is continuous with the brain.  It descends from the medulla through the foramen magnum of the occipital bone and extends to the lumbar vertebrae.  A cross-sectional view of the spinal cord reveals both gray matter and white matter (Fig. 8.26).  The gray matter has the shape of a butterfly with outstretched wings and is centrally located to the white matter.  The spinal cord has two basic functions.  It transmits nerve impulses to and from the brain, and it serves as a reflex center for spinal reflexes.

This figure shows the cross section of the spinal cord. The top panel shows a diagram of the cross section and the major parts are labeled. The bottom panel shows an ultrasound image of the spinal cord cross section.
Figure 8.26. Cross-section of Spinal Cord
The cross-section of a thoracic spinal cord segment shows the posterior, anterior, and lateral horns of gray matter, as well as the posterior, anterior, and lateral columns of white matter. LM × 40. (Micrograph provided by the Regents of University of Michigan Medical School © 2012)


Interactive Link

Watch this video to learn about the gray matter of the spinal cord that receives input from fibers of the dorsal (posterior) root and sends information out through the fibers of the ventral (anterior) root. As discussed in this video, these connections represent the interactions of the CNS with peripheral structures for both sensory and motor functions. The cervical and lumbar spinal cords have enlargements as a result of larger populations of neurons. What are these enlargements responsible for?

Disorders of the Basal Nuclei

Parkinson’s disease is a disorder of the basal nuclei, specifically of the substantia nigra, that demonstrates the effects of the direct and indirect pathways. Parkinson’s disease is the result of neurons in the substantia nigra pars compacta dying. These neurons release dopamine into the striatum. Without that modulatory influence, the basal nuclei are stuck in the indirect pathway, without the direct pathway being activated. The direct pathway is responsible for increasing cortical movement commands. The increased activity of the indirect pathway results in the hypokinetic disorder of Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s disease is neurodegenerative, meaning that neurons die that cannot be replaced, so there is no cure for the disorder. Treatments for Parkinson’s disease are aimed at increasing dopamine levels in the striatum. Currently, the most common way of doing that is by providing the amino acid L-DOPA, which is a precursor to the neurotransmitter dopamine and can cross the blood-brain barrier. With levels of the precursor elevated, the remaining cells of the substantia nigra pars compacta can make more neurotransmitter and have a greater effect. Unfortunately, the patient will become less responsive to L-DOPA treatment as time progresses, and it can cause increased dopamine levels elsewhere in the brain, which are associated with psychosis or schizophrenia.

Interactive Link

Visit this site for a thorough explanation of Parkinson’s disease.