The Peripheral Nervous System

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the structures found in the PNS
  • Name the twelve cranial nerves and explain the functions associated with each

The PNS is not as contained as the CNS because it is defined as everything that is not the CNS. Some peripheral structures are incorporated into the other organs of the body. In describing the anatomy of the PNS, the focus will remain on the common structures that are found in various parts of the body.

Nerves

Bundles of axons in the PNS are referred to as nerves. These structures in the periphery are different than the central counterpart, called a tract. Nerves are composed of more than just nervous tissue. They have connective tissues invested in their structure, as well as blood vessels supplying the tissues with nourishment. The outer surface of a nerve is a surrounding layer of fibrous connective tissue called the epineurium. Within the nerve, axons are further bundled into fascicles, which are each surrounded by their own layer of fibrous connective tissue called perineurium. Finally, individual axons are surrounded by loose connective tissue called the endoneurium (Figure 8.27). These three layers are similar to the connective tissue sheaths for muscles. Nerves are associated with the region of the CNS to which they are connected, either as cranial nerves connected to the brain or spinal nerves connected to the spinal cord.

This figure shows the structure of a nerve. The top panel shows the cross section of a spinal nerve and the major parts are labeled. The bottom panel shows a micrograph of the cross-section of a spinal nerve.
Figure 8.27. Nerve Structure
The structure of a nerve is organized by the layers of connective tissue on the outside, around each fascicle, and surrounding the individual nerve fibers (tissue source: simian). LM × 40. (Micrograph provided by the Regents of University of Michigan Medical School © 2012)
 

Cranial Nerves

The nerves attached to the brain are the cranial nerves, which are primarily responsible for the sensory and motor functions of the head and neck (one of these nerves targets organs in the thoracic and abdominal cavities as part of the parasympathetic nervous system). There are twelve cranial nerves, which are designated CNI through CNXII for “Cranial Nerve,” using Roman numerals for 1 through 12. They can be classified as sensory nerves, motor nerves, or a combination of both, meaning that the axons in these nerves originate out of sensory ganglia external to the cranium or motor nuclei within the brain stem. Three of the nerves are solely composed of sensory fibers; five are strictly motor; and the remaining four are mixed nerves. Learning the cranial nerves is a tradition in anatomy courses, and students have always used mnemonic devices to remember the nerve names. A traditional mnemonic is the rhyming couplet, “Oh Oh Oh, To Touch And Feel Very Green Vegetables, AH” in which the initial letter of each word corresponds to the initial letter in the name of each nerve. The names of the nerves have changed over the years to reflect current usage and more accurate naming. An exercise to help learn this sort of information is to generate a mnemonic using words that have personal significance. The names of the cranial nerves are listed in Table 8.3 along with a brief description of their function, their source (sensory or motor), and their target (sensory or skeletal muscle). They are listed here with a brief explanation of each nerve (Figure 8.28). The olfactory nerve and optic nerve are responsible for the sense of smell and vision, respectively. The oculomotor nerve is responsible for eye movements by controlling four of the extraocular muscles. It is also responsible for lifting the upper eyelid when the eyes point up, and for pupillary constriction. The trochlear nerve and the abducens nerve are both responsible for eye movement, but do so by controlling different extraocular muscles. The trigeminal nerve is responsible for cutaneous sensations of the face and controlling the muscles of mastication. The facial nerve is responsible for the muscles involved in facial expressions, as well as part of the sense of taste and the production of saliva. The vestibulocochlear nerve is responsible for the senses of hearing and balance. The glossopharyngeal nerve is responsible for controlling muscles in the oral cavity and upper throat, as well as part of the sense of taste and the production of saliva. The vagus nerve is responsible for contributing to homeostatic control of the organs of the thoracic and upper abdominal cavities. The spinal accessory nerve is responsible for controlling the muscles of the neck, along with cervical spinal nerves. The hypoglossal nerve is responsible for controlling the muscles of the lower throat and tongue.

This diagrams shows the brain and the main nerves in the brain are labeled.
Figure 8.28. The Cranial Nerves
The anatomical arrangement of the roots of the cranial nerves observed from an inferior view of the brain.
 
 

Interactive Link

Visit this site to read about a man who wakes with a headache and a loss of vision. His regular doctor sent him to an ophthalmologist to address the vision loss. The ophthalmologist recognizes a greater problem and immediately sends him to the emergency room. Once there, the patient undergoes a large battery of tests, but a definite cause cannot be found. A specialist recognizes the problem as meningitis, but the question is what caused it originally. How can that be cured? The loss of vision comes from swelling around the optic nerve, which probably presented as a bulge on the inside of the eye. Why is swelling related to meningitis going to push on the optic nerve?

# Name Type Function Mneumonic
I Olfactory Sensory Smell Oh
II Optic Sensory Vision Oh
III Oculomotor Motor Most Eye Movement and Accomodation Oh
IV Trochlear Motor Moves eye To
V Trigeminal Both Face sensation, mastication Touch
VI Abducens Motor Eye Movement (abducts the eye) And
VII Facial Both Facial expression, taste Feel
VIII Vestibulocochlear Sensory Hearing, balance Very
IX Glossopharyngeal Both taste, gag reflex, tongue movement Green
X Vagus Both thoracic and abdominal organs, esophagus, larynx, and pharynx Vegetables
XI Accessory Motor Shoulder shrug (trapezius muscle) A
XII Hypoglossal Motor tongue (swallowing, speech) H

Table 8.3

Spinal Nerves

The nerves connected to the spinal cord are the spinal nerves. The arrangement of these nerves is much more regular than that of the cranial nerves. All of the spinal nerves are combined sensory and motor axons that separate into two nerve roots. The sensory axons enter the spinal cord as the dorsal nerve root. The motor fibers, both somatic and autonomic, emerge as the ventral nerve root. The dorsal root ganglion for each nerve is an enlargement of the spinal nerve. There are 31 spinal nerves, named for the level of the spinal cord at which each one emerges. There are eight pairs of cervical nerves designated C1 to C8, twelve thoracic nerves designated T1 to T12, five pairs of lumbar nerves designated L1 to L5, five pairs of sacral nerves designated S1 to S5, and one pair of coccygeal nerves. The nerves are numbered from the superior to inferior positions, and each emerges from the vertebral column through the intervertebral foramen at its level. The first nerve, C1, emerges between the first cervical vertebra and the occipital bone. The second nerve, C2, emerges between the first and second cervical vertebrae. The same occurs for C3 to C7, but C8 emerges between the seventh cervical vertebra and the first thoracic vertebra. For the thoracic and lumbar nerves, each one emerges between the vertebra that has the same designation and the next vertebra in the column. The sacral nerves emerge from the sacral foramina along the length of that unique vertebra. Spinal nerves extend outward from the vertebral column to enervate the periphery. The nerves in the periphery are not straight continuations of the spinal nerves, but rather the reorganization of the axons in those nerves to follow different courses. Axons from different spinal nerves will come together into a systemic nerve. This occurs at four places along the length of the vertebral column, each identified as a nerve plexus, whereas the other spinal nerves directly correspond to nerves at their respective levels. In this instance, the word plexus is used to describe networks of nerve fibers with no associated cell bodies. Of the four nerve plexuses, two are found at the cervical level, one at the lumbar level, and one at the sacral level (Figure 8.29).

The cervical plexus is composed of axons from spinal nerves C1 through C5 and branches into nerves in the posterior neck and head, as well as the phrenic nerve, which connects to the diaphragm at the base of the thoracic cavity. The other plexus from the cervical level is the brachial plexus. Spinal nerves C4 through T1 reorganize through this plexus to give rise to the nerves of the arms, as the name brachial suggests. A large nerve from this plexus is the radial nerve from which the axillary nerve branches to go to the armpit region. The radial nerve continues through the arm and is paralleled by the ulnar nerve and the median nerve. The lumbar plexus arises from all the lumbar spinal nerves and gives rise to nerves enervating the pelvic region and the anterior leg. The femoral nerve is one of the major nerves from this plexus, which gives rise to the saphenous nerve as a branch that extends through the anterior lower leg. The sacral plexus comes from the lower lumbar nerves L4 and L5 and the sacral nerves S1 to S4. The most significant systemic nerve to come from this plexus is the sciatic nerve, which is a combination of the tibial nerve and the fibular nerve. The sciatic nerve extends across the hip joint and is most commonly associated with the condition sciatica, which is the result of compression or irritation of the nerve or any of the spinal nerves giving rise to it. These plexuses are described as arising from spinal nerves and giving rise to certain systemic nerves, but they contain fibers that serve sensory functions or fibers that serve motor functions. This means that some fibers extend from cutaneous or other peripheral sensory surfaces and send action potentials into the CNS. Those are axons of sensory neurons in the dorsal root ganglia that enter the spinal cord through the dorsal nerve root. Other fibers are the axons of motor neurons of the anterior horn of the spinal cord, which emerge in the ventral nerve root and send action potentials to cause skeletal muscles to contract in their target regions. For example, the radial nerve contains fibers of cutaneous sensation in the arm, as well as motor fibers that move muscles in the arm. Spinal nerves of the thoracic region, T2 through T11, are not part of the plexuses but rather emerge and give rise to the intercostal nerves found between the ribs, which articulate with the vertebrae surrounding the spinal nerve.

This figure shows a torso of a human body. The spinal cord is shown in the body and the main nerves along the spinal cord are labeled.
Figure 8.29. Nerve Plexuses of the Body
There are four main nerve plexuses in the human body. The cervical plexus supplies nerves to the posterior head and neck, as well as to the diaphragm. The brachial plexus supplies nerves to the arm. The lumbar plexus supplies nerves to the anterior leg. The sacral plexus supplies nerves to the posterior leg.
 

Aging and the Nervous System

Anosmia is the loss of the sense of smell. It is often the result of the olfactory nerve being severed, usually because of blunt force trauma to the head. The sensory neurons of the olfactory epithelium have a limited lifespan of approximately one to four months, and new ones are made on a regular basis. The new neurons extend their axons into the CNS by growing along the existing fibers of the olfactory nerve. The ability of these neurons to be replaced is lost with age. Age-related anosmia is not the result of impact trauma to the head, but rather a slow loss of the sensory neurons with no new neurons born to replace them. Smell is an important sense, especially for the enjoyment of food. There are only five tastes sensed by the tongue, and two of them are generally thought of as unpleasant tastes (sour and bitter). The rich sensory experience of food is the result of odor molecules associated with the food, both as food is moved into the mouth, and therefore passes under the nose, and when it is chewed and molecules are released to move up the pharynx into the posterior nasal cavity. Anosmia results in a loss of the enjoyment of food. As the replacement of olfactory neurons declines with age, anosmia can set in. Without the sense of smell, many sufferers complain of food tasting bland. Often, the only way to enjoy food is to add seasoning that can be sensed on the tongue, which usually means adding table salt. The problem with this solution, however, is that this increases sodium intake, which can lead to cardiovascular problems through water retention and the associated increase in blood pressure.