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Nervous system

Nervous system (anterior view)

The nervous system is a network of neurons whose main feature is to generate, modulate and transmit information between all the different parts of the human body. This property enables many important functions of the nervous system, such as regulation of vital body functions (heartbeat, breathing, digestion), sensation and body movements. Ultimately, the nervous system structures preside over everything that makes us human; our consciousness, cognition, behaviour and memories.

The nervous system consists of two divisions; 

Key facts about the nervous system
Definition A network of neurons that sends, receives and modulates neural impulses between different body parts.
Divisions Central nervous system
Peripheral nervous system
Central nervous system Brain and spinal cord
Peripheral nervous system Spinal and cranial nerves.
Functional divisions:
- Somatic nervous system
- Autonomic nervous system; sympathetic, parasympathetic and enteric divisions

Understanding the nervous system requires knowledge of its various parts, so in this article you will learn about the nervous system breakdown and all its various divisions.

Recommended video: What is the nervous system?
Overview of the central and peripheral nervous systems.

Cells of the nervous system 

Two basic types of cells are present in the nervous system; 

  • Neurons
  • Glial cells

Neurons

Types of neurons

Neurons, or nerve cell, are the main structural and functional units of the nervous system. Every neuron consists of a body (soma) and a number of processes (neurites). The nerve cell body contains the cellular organelles and is where neural impulses (action potentials) are generated. The processes stem from the body, they connect neurons with each other and with other body cells, enabling the flow of neural impulses. There are two types of neural processes that differ in structure and function; 

  • Axons are long and conduct impulses away from the neuronal body. 
  • Dendrites are short and act to receive impulses from other neurons, conducting the electrical signal towards the nerve cell body.

Every neuron has a single axon, while the number of dendrites varies. Based on that number, there are four structural types of neurons; multipolar, bipolar, pseudounipolar and unipolar. 

Learn more about the neurons in our video tutorial and quiz.

How do neurons function?

The morphology of neurons makes them highly specialized to work with neural impulses; they generate, receive and send these impulses onto other neurons and non-neural tissues. 

There are two types of neurons, named according to whether they send an electrical signal towards or away from the CNS;

  • Efferent neurons (motor or descending) send neural impulses from the CNS to the peripheral tissues, instructing them how to function. 
  • Afferent neurons (sensory or ascending) conduct impulses from the peripheral tissues to the CNS. These impulses contain sensory information, describing the tissue's environment.

The site where an axon connects to another cell to pass the neural impulse is called a synapse. The synapse doesn't connect to the next cell directly. Instead, the impulse triggers the release of chemicals called neurotransmitters from the very end of an axon. These neurotransmitters bind to the effector cell’s membrane, causing biochemical events to occur within that cell according to the orders sent by the CNS.

Glial cells

Glial cells, also called neuroglia or simply glia, are smaller non-excitatory cells that act to support neurons. They do not propagate action potentials. Instead, they myelinate neurons, maintain homeostatic balance, provide structural support, protection and nutrition for neurons throughout the nervous system. 

This set of functions is provided for by four different types of glial cells;

  • Myelinating glia produce the axon-insulating myelin sheath. These are called oligodendrocytes in the CNS and Schwann cells in the PNS. 
  • Astrocytes (CNS) and satellite glial cells (PNS) both share the function of supporting and protecting neurons. 
  • Other two glial cell types are found in CNS exclusively; microglia are the phagocytes of the CNS and ependymal cells which line the ventricular system of the CNS. The PNS doesn’t have a glial equivalent to microglia as the phagocytic role is performed by macrophages.

Most axons are wrapped by a white insulating substance called the myelin sheath, produced by oligodendrocytes and Schwann cells. Myelin encloses an axon segmentally, leaving unmyelinated gaps between the segments called the nodes of Ranvier. The neural impulses propagate through the Ranvier nodes only, skipping the myelin sheath. This significantly increases the speed of neural impulse propagation. 

White and gray matter

The white color of myelinated axons is distinguished from the gray colored neuronal bodies and dendrites. Based on this, nervous tissue is divided into white matter and gray matter, both of which has a specific distribution; 

  • White matter comprises the outermost layer of the spinal cord and the inner part of the brain.
  • Gray matter is located in the central part of the spinal cord, outermost layer of the brain (cerebral cortex), and in several subcortical nuclei of the brain deep to the cerebral cortex.

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Nervous system divisions

Nervous system breakdown (diagram)

So nervous tissue, comprised of neurons and neuroglia, forms our nervous organs (e.g. the brain, nerves). These organs unite according to their common function, forming the evolutionary perfection that is our nervous system. 

The nervous system (NS) is structurally broken down into two divisions; 

  • Central nervous system (CNS) - consists of the brain and spinal cord
  • Peripheral nervous system (PNS) - gathers all neural tissue outside the CNS

Functionally, the PNS is further subdivided into two functional divisions; 

  • Somatic nervous system (SNS) -  informally described as the voluntary system
  • Autonomic nervous system (ANS) - described as the involuntary system. 

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Although divided structurally into central and peripheral parts, the nervous system divisions are actually interconnected with each other. Axon bundles pass impulses between the brain and spinal cord. These bundles within the CNS are called afferent and efferent neural pathways or tracts. Axons that extend from the CNS to connect with peripheral tissues belong to the PNS. Axons bundles within the PNS are called afferent and efferent peripheral nerves.

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Central nervous system

The central nervous system (CNS) consists of the brain and spinal cord. These are found housed within the skull and vertebral column respectively.

The brain is made of four parts; cerebrum, diencephalon, cerebellum and brainstem. Together these parts process the incoming information from peripheral tissues and generate commands; telling the tissues how to respond and function. These commands tackle the most complex voluntary and involuntary human body functions, from breathing to thinking.

The spinal cord continues from the brainstem. It also has the ability to generate commands but for involuntary processes only, i.e. reflexes. However, its main function is to pass information between the CNS and periphery. 

Learn more about the CNS anatomy in our article.

Peripheral nervous system

Recommended video: Peripheral nervous system
Anatomy and function of the peripheral nervous system.

The PNS consists of 12 pairs of cranial nerves, 31 pairs of spinal nerves and a number of small neuronal clusters throughout the body called ganglia.
Peripheral nerves can be sensory (afferent), motor (efferent) or mixed (both). Depending on what structures they innervate, peripheral nerves can have the following modalities;

Cranial nerves

12 cranial nerves (diagram)

Cranial nerves are peripheral nerves that emerge from the cranial nerve nuclei of the brainstem and spinal cord. They innervate the head and neck. Cranial nerves are numbered one to twelve according to their order of exit through the skull fissures. Namely, they are: olfactory nerve (CN I), optic nerve (CN II), oculomotor nerve (CN III), trochlear nerve (CN IV), trigeminal nerve (CN V), abducens nerve (VI), facial nerve (VII), vestibulocochlear nerve (VIII), glossopharyngeal nerve (IX), vagus nerve (X), accessory nerve (XI), and hypoglossal nerve (XII). These nerves are motor (III, IV, VI, XI, and XII), sensory (I, II and VIII) or mixed (V, VII, IX, and X).

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Learn more about the cranial nerves here.

Spinal nerves

Spinal nerves (diagram)

Spinal nerves emerge from the segments of the spinal cord. They are numbered according to their specific segment of origin. Hence, the 31 pairs of spinal nerves are divided into 8 cervical pairs, 12 thoracic pairs, 5 lumbar pairs, 5 sacral pairs, and 1 coccygeal spinal nerve. All spinal nerves are mixed, containing both sensory and motor fibers.

Spinal nerves innervate the entire body, with the exception of the head. They do so by either directly synapsing with their target organs or by interlacing with each other and forming plexuses. There are four major plexuses that supply the body regions; 

Want to learn more about the spinal nerves and plexuses? Check out our resources.

Ganglia

Ganglia (sing. ganglion) are clusters of neuronal cell bodies outside of the CNS, meaning that they are the PNS equivalents to subcortical nuclei of the CNS. Ganglia can be sensory or visceral motor (autonomic) and their distribution in the body is clearly defined.

Dorsal root ganglia are clusters of sensory nerve cell bodies located adjacent to the spinal cord, They are a component of the posterior root of a spinal nerve.

Autonomic ganglia are either sympathetic or parasympathetic. Sympathetic ganglia are found in the thorax and abdomen, grouped into paravertebral and prevertebral ganglia. Paravertebral ganglia lie on either side of vertebral column (para- means beside), comprising two ganglionic chains that extend from the base of the skull to the coccyx, called sympathetic trunks. Prevertebral ganglia (collateral ganglia, preaortic ganglia) are found anterior to the vertebral column (pre- means in front of), closer to their target organ. They are further grouped according to which branch of abdominal aorta they surround; celiac, aorticorenal, superior and inferior mesenteric ganglia.

Parasympathetic ganglia are found in the head and pelvis. Ganglia in the head are associated with relevant cranial nerves and are the ciliary, pterygopalatine, otic and submandibular ganglia. Pelvic ganglia lie close to the reproductive organs comprising autonomic plexuses for innervation of pelvic viscera, such as prostatic and uterovaginal plexuses.

Find everything about ganglia needed for your neuroanatomy exam here.

Somatic nervous system

The somatic nervous system is the voluntary component of the peripheral nervous system. It consists of all the fibers within cranial and spinal nerves that enable us to perform voluntary body movements (efferent nerves) and feel sensation from the skin, muscles and joints (afferent nerves). Somatic sensation relates to touch, pressure, vibration, pain, temperature, stretch and position sense from these three types of structures. 

Sensation from the glands, smooth and cardiac muscles is conveyed by the autonomic nerves.

Autonomic nervous system

The autonomic nervous system is the involuntary part of the peripheral nervous system. Further divided into the sympathetic (SANS), parasympathetic (PANS) systems, it is comprised exclusively of visceral motor fibers. Nerves from both these divisions innervate all involuntary structures of the body; 

Balanced functioning of these two systems plays a crucial role in maintaining homeostasis, meaning that the SANS and PANS do not oppose each other but rather, they complement each other. They do so by potentiating the activity of different organs under various circumstances; for example, the PSNS will stimulate higher intestine activity after food intake, while SANS will stimulate the heart to increase the output during exercise.

Autonomic nerves synapse within autonomic ganglia before reaching their target organ, thus all of them have presynaptic and postsynaptic parts. Presynaptic fibers originate from CNS and end by synapsing with neurons of the peripheral autonomic ganglia. Postsynaptic fibers are the axons of ganglion neurons, extending from the ganglion to peripheral tissues. In sympathetic nerves, the presynaptic fiber is short as the ganglia are located very close to the spinal cord, while the postsynaptic fiber is much longer in order to reach the target organ. In parasympathetic nerves it’s the opposite; the presynaptic fiber is longer than the postsynaptic.

The autonomic nervous system seems to be the only thing that can act without your free will. Learn about how it does that here.

Sympathetic nervous system

The sympathetic system (SANS) adjusts our bodies for situations of increased physical activity. Its actions are commonly described as the “fight-or-flight” response as it stimulates responses such as faster breathing, increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, dilated pupils and redirection of blood flow from the skin, kidneys, stomach and intestines to the heart and muscles, where it’s needed. 

Sympathetic nerve fibers have a thoracolumbar origin, meaning that they stem from the T1-L2/L3 spinal cord segments. They synapse with prevertebral and paravertebral ganglia, from which the postsynaptic fibers travel to supply the target viscera.

Sympathetic nervous system anatomy is covered in detail here.

Parasympathetic nervous system

The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) adjusts our bodies for energy conservation, activating “rest and digest” or “feed and breed” activities. The nerves of the PSNS slow down the actions of cardiovascular system, divert blood away from muscles and increase peristalsis and gland secretion. 

Parasympathetic fibers have craniosacral outflow, meaning that they originate from the brainstem (cranio-) and S2-S4 spinal cord segments (-sacral). These fibers travel to thoracic and abdominal organs, where they synapse in ganglia located close to or within the target organ.

Learn about the parasympathetic nervous system anatomy in this article.

Enteric nervous system

Enteric nervous system comprises the SANS and PANS fibers that regulate the activity of the gastrointestinal tract. This system is made of parasympathetic fibers of the vagus nerve (CN X) and sympathetic fibers of the thoracic splanchnic nerves. These fibers form two plexuses within the wall of the intestinal tube which are responsible for modulating intestinal peristalsis, i.e. propagation of consumed food from esophagus to rectum;

  • Submucosal plexus (of Meissner) found in the submucosa of the intestines and contains only parasympathetic fibers
  • Myenteric plexus (of Auerbach) located in the muscularis externa of intestines, containing both sympathetic and parasympathetic nerve fibers

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Clinical notes

Vagotomy

Vagotomy for gastric ulcers is an old procedure which is used as surgical management in patients with recurrent gastric ulcers when there is no effect of diet alterations or antiulcer drugs. The vagus nerve stimulates the secretion of gastric acid. Three types of vagotomy can be performed which would greatly diminish this effect.

Cranial nerve palsies

The 12 cranial nerves all leave/enter the skull through various foramina. Narrowing of these foramina or any constriction along the nerves course results in nerve palsy. For example, Bell’s palsy affects the facial nerve. On the affected side of the face, the patient has:

  • hemiplegia
  • dry eyesan absent corneal reflex, overloud hearing and affected taste in the anterior 2/3 of the tongue.
  • an absent corneal reflex
  • overloud hearing

affected taste in the anterior 2/3 of the tongue

Limb nerve lesions

Limb nerve palsies often result from fracture, constriction or overuse. For example, carpal tunnel syndrome affects the median nerve, and occurs when the nerve is compressed within the tunnel. This is due to enlargement of the flexor tendons within the tunnel or swelling due to oedema. It often occurs in pregnancy and acromegaly.

Hirschsprung’s disease

This is colonic atony secondary to a failure of the ganglion cells (described in the enteric nervous system section) to migrate into the enteric nervous system. This results in a severely constipated and malnourished child, which is in desperate need of corrective surgery.

Spina bifida

Failure of normal development of the meninges and/or vertebral neural arch results in a defect usually in the lumbar spine, where part of the spinal cord is covered only by meninges and therefore sits outside the body. Both environmental and genetic factors contribute to its cause. Folate supplements are now given to all pregnant mothers in early pregnancy for its prevention.

Parkinson’s disease

Dopamine is essential for the correct functioning of the basal ganglia, structures in the brain that control our cognition and movement. Parkinson’s patients suffer degradation of these dopaminergic neurons in the substantia nigra, resulting in:

  • difficulty initiating movement
  • shuffling gait
  • masked facies
  • cog-wheel/lead-pipe rigidity in the limbs

Nervous system: want to learn more about it?

Our engaging videos, interactive quizzes, in-depth articles and HD atlas are here to get you top results faster.

Sign up for your free Kenhub account today and join over 1,234,089 successful anatomy students.

“I would honestly say that Kenhub cut my study time in half.” – Read more. Kim Bengochea Kim Bengochea, Regis University, Denver

Show references

References:

  • Blumenfeld, H. (2018). Neuroanatomy through clinical cases. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer.
  • Goodfellow, J., Collins, D., Silva, D., Dardis, R., & Nagaraya, S. (2016). Neurology & neurosurgery. New Delhi, India: Jp medical pub.
  • Patestas, M. A., & Gartner, L. P. (2016). A textbook of neuroanatomy. Hoboken: Wiley Blackwell
  • Waxman, S. G. (2010). Clinical neuroanatomy. New York: McGraw-Hill Medical.

Author, review and layout:

  • Jana Vaskovic
  • Nicola McLaren

Illustrators:

  • Nervous system (anterior view) - Begoña Rodriguez
  • 12 cranial nerves (diagram) - Paul Kim
© Unless stated otherwise, all content, including illustrations are exclusive property of Kenhub GmbH, and are protected by German and international copyright laws. All rights reserved.

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