The nervous system consists of the brain, spinal cord, sensory organs, and all the nerves that connect these organs with the rest of the body. Together, these organs are responsible for the control of the body and communication among its parts.
The brain and spinal cord form the control center known as the central nervous system (CNS), where information is evaluated and decisions made. The sensory nerves and sense organs of the peripheral nervous system (PNS) monitor conditions inside and outside of the body and send this information to the CNS. Efferent nerves in the PNS carry signals from the control center to the muscles, glands, and organs to regulate their functions.
Most of the nervous system is tissue made up of two classes of cells: neurons and neuroglia.
Neurons, also known as nerve cells, communicate within the body by transmitting electrochemical signals. Neurons look quite different from other cells in the body due to the many long cellular processes that extend from their central cell body. The cell body is the roughly round part of a neuron that contains the nucleus, mitochondria, and most of the cellular organelles. Small tree-like structures called dendrites extend from the cell body to pick up stimuli from the environment, other neurons, or sensory receptor cells. Long transmitting processes called axons extend from the cell body to send signals onward to other neurons or effector cells in the body.
The brain, a soft, wrinkled organ that weighs about 3 pounds, is located inside the cranial cavity, where the bones of the skull surround and protect it. The approximately 100 billion neurons of the brain form the main control center of the body. The brain and spinal cord together form the central nervous system (CNS), where information is processed and responses originate. The brain, the seat of higher mental functions such as consciousness, memory, planning, and voluntary actions, also controls lower body functions such as the maintenance of respiration, heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion.
The spinal cord is a long, thin mass of bundled neurons that carries information through the vertebral cavity of the spine beginning at the medulla oblongata of the brain on its superior end and continuing inferiorly to the lumbar region of the spine. In the lumbar region, the spinal cord separates into a bundle of individual nerves called the cauda equina (due to its resemblance to a horse’s tail) that continues inferiorly to the sacrum and coccyx. The white matter of the spinal cord functions as the main conduit of nerve signals to the body from the brain. The grey matter of the spinal cord integrates reflexes to stimuli.
Functions of the Nervous System
The nervous system has 3 main functions: sensory, integration, and motor.
The sensory function of the nervous system involves collecting information from sensory receptors that monitor the body’s internal and external conditions. These signals are then passed on to the central nervous system (CNS) for further processing by afferent neurons (and nerves).
The process of integration is the processing of the many sensory signals that are passed into the CNS at any given time. These signals are evaluated, compared, used for decision making, discarded or committed to memory as deemed appropriate. Integration takes place in the gray matter of the brain and spinal cord and is performed by interneurons. Many interneurons work together to form complex networks that provide this processing power.
Once the networks of interneurons in the CNS evaluate sensory information and decide on an action, they stimulate efferent neurons. Efferent neurons (also called motor neurons) carry signals from the gray matter of the CNS through the nerves of the peripheral nervous system to effector cells. The effector may be smooth, cardiac, or skeletal muscle tissue or glandular tissue. The effector then releases a hormone or moves a part of the body to respond to the stimulus.
Divisions of the Nervous System
Central Nervous System
The brain and spinal cord together form the central nervous system, or CNS. The CNS acts as the control center of the body by providing its processing, memory, and regulation systems. The CNS takes in all the conscious and subconscious sensory information from the body’s sensory receptors to stay aware of the body’s internal and external conditions. Using this sensory information, it makes decisions about both conscious and subconscious actions to take to maintain the body’s homeostasis and ensure its survival. The CNS is also responsible for the higher functions of the nervous system such as language, creativity, expression, emotions, and personality. The brain is the seat of consciousness and determines who we are as individuals.
Peripheral Nervous System
The peripheral nervous system (PNS) includes all the parts of the nervous system outside of the brain and spinal cord. These parts include all the cranial and spinal nerves, ganglia, and sensory receptors.
Somatic Nervous System (SNS)
The SNS is the only consciously controlled part of the PNS and is responsible for stimulating skeletal muscles in the body.
Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)
The ANS controls subconscious effectors such as visceral muscle tissue, cardiac muscle tissue, and glandular tissue.
There are 2 divisions of the autonomic nervous system in the body: the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions.
The sympathetic division forms the body’s “fight or flight” response to stress, danger, excitement, exercise, emotions, and embarrassment. The sympathetic division increases respiration and heart rate, releases adrenaline and other stress hormones, and decreases digestion to cope with these situations.
The parasympathetic division forms the body’s “rest and digest” response when the body is relaxed, resting, or feeding. The parasympathetic works to undo the work of the sympathetic division after a stressful situation. Among other functions, the parasympathetic division works to decrease respiration and heart rate, increase digestion, and permit the elimination of wastes.