Nervous System

The central nervous system includes the brain and spinal cord. The brain and spinal cord are protected by bony structures, membranes, and fluid. The brain is held in the cranial cavity of the skull and it consists of the cerebrum, cerebellum, and the brain stem. The nerves involved are cranial nerves and spinal nerves.

This diagram shows a silhouette of a human highlighting the nervous system. It focuses on six main components: The central nervous system, the cranial nerves the Brachial plexus, the thoracoabdominal nerves, the Lumbar plexus, and the sacral plexus. The central nervous system is composed of the brain and spinal cord. The brain is a large mass of ridged and striated tissue within the head and includes the cerebellum, cerebrum, and brainstem. The spinal cord extends down from the brain and travels through the torso, ending in the pelvis. The cranial nerves are located below the brain and includes the vagus, which parallels the spinal cord. The Brachial plexus includes four nerves: the musculocutaneous, radial, median, and ulnar. These nerves run from the spinal cord down the arms. The thoracoabdominal nerves include six nerves, which run from the spinal cord to different locations in the body. The intercostals run along the ribs. The subcostal runs below the ribs. The Iliohypogastric runs near the stomach. The Ilioinguinal runs just below that. The Lateral cutaneous of thigh runs along the thigh. The Genitofemoral runs down the leg. The Lumbar plexus includes four nerves located in the upper and mid leg: The obturator, the femoral, muscular branches of the femoral, and the saphenous. The sacral plexus includes six nerves located in the lower leg: The sciatic, tibial, common peroneal, deep peroneal, superficial peroneal, and sural.

Figure 1. The nervous system.

The nervous system has three main functions: sensory input, integration of data and motor output. Sensory input is when the body gathers information or data, by way of neurons, glia and synapses. The nervous system is composed of excitable nerve cells (neurons) and synapses that form between the neurons and connect them to centers throughout the body or to other neurons. These neurons operate on excitation or inhibition, and although nerve cells can vary in size and location, their communication with one another determines their function. These nerves conduct impulses from sensory receptors to the brain and spinal cord. The data is then processed by way of integration of data, which occurs only in the brain. After the brain has processed the information, impulses are then conducted from the brain and spinal cord to muscles and glands, which is called motor output. Glia cells are found within tissues and are not excitable but help with myelination, ionic regulation and extracellular fluid.

The nervous system is comprised of two major parts, or subdivisions, the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The CNS includes the brain and spinal cord. The brain is the body’s “control center.” The CNS has various centers located within it that carry out the sensory, motor and integration of data. These centers can be subdivided to Lower Centers (including the spinal cord and brain stem) and Higher centers communicating with the brain via effectors.

The PNS is a vast network of spinal and cranial nerves that are linked to the brain and the spinal cord. It contains sensory receptors which help in processing changes in the internal and external environment. This information is sent to the CNS via afferent sensory nerves. The PNS is then subdivided into the autonomic nervous system and the somatic nervous system. The autonomic has involuntary control of internal organs, blood vessels, smooth and cardiac muscles. The somatic has voluntary control of skin, bones, joints, and skeletal muscle. The two systems function together, by way of nerves from the PNS entering and becoming part of the CNS, and vice versa.

General functions of the CNS

The central nervous system (CNS) represents the largest part of the nervous system, including the brain and the spinal cord. Together with the peripheral nervous system (PNS), it has a fundamental role in the control of behavior.

When the central nervous system becomes damaged or peripheral nerves become trapped, a variety of impacts are possible. It can increase or decrease your internal organs functionality, it can even affect your facial expressions, i.e. make you frown a lot, your smile may become lop sided, your lungs can overwork, or underwork, lung capacity may increase or decrease, your bladder can fill, but you become unable to urinate, your bowels become lapsed and you are unable to completely clear them upon each bowel movement, the muscles in your arms, legs and torso can become weaker and more fatty, not from lack of use, but from the nerves that run from your spine into them being restricted from working properly, you can suffer headaches, earaches, sore throats, blocked sinuses. Even your ability to orgasm can be affected.

The CNS is conceived as a system devoted to information processing, where an appropriate motor output is computed as a response to a sensory input. Many threads of research suggest that motor activity exists well before the maturation of the sensory systems, and senses only influence behavior without dictating it. This has brought the conception of the CNS as an autonomous system.



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.