Mohamed Awad
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Education Standards (1)

Neurons & Nervous System

Neurons & Nervous System

Illustration shows a woman, upside-down with an arched back, going over a pole vault.
An athlete’s nervous system is hard at work during the planning and execution of a movement as precise as a high jump. Parts of the nervous system are involved in determining how hard to push off and when to turn, as well as controlling the muscles throughout the body that make this complicated movement possible without knocking the bar down—all in just a few seconds. (credit: modification of work by Shane T. McCoy, U.S. Navy)

When you’re reading this book, your nervous system is performing several functions simultaneously. The visual system is processing what is seen on the page; the motor system controls the turn of the pages (or click of the mouse); the prefrontal cortex maintains attention. Even fundamental functions, like breathing and regulation of body temperature, are controlled by the nervous system. A nervous system is an organism’s control center: it processes sensory information from outside (and inside) the body and controls all behaviors—from eating to sleeping to finding a mate.

Neurons & Nervous System



By the end of this part of the module, you will be able to:

  • Identify the diversity of nervous system/neurons
  • Identify the structure of neurons
  • Describe the basis of the resting membrane potential
  • Explain the stages of an action potential and how action potentials are propagated


Nervous System Diversity


Nervous systems throughout the animal kingdom vary in structure and complexity, as illustrated by the variety of animals shown in Figure. Some organisms, like sea sponges, lack a true nervous system. Others, like jellyfish, lack a true brain and instead have a system of separate but connected nerve cells (neurons) called a “nerve net.” Sea stars have nerve cells that are bundled into fibers called nerves. Flatworms have both a central nervous system (CNS), made up of a small “brain” and two nerve cords, and a peripheral nervous system (PNS) containing a system of nerves that extend throughout the body. The insect nervous system is more complex but also fairly decentralized. It contains a brain, ventral nerve cord, and ganglia (clusters of connected neurons). These ganglia can control movements and behaviors without input from the brain. 

Illustration A shows the nerve net of a hydra, which resembles a fish net surrounding the body. Illustration B shows the nervous system of a sea star. A nerve ring is present in the center of the body. Radiating out from this ring into the five arms are radial nerves. Illustration C shows the nervous system of a planarian, or flatworm. The flatworm has centralized ganglia, or brains, around each eye in the anterior end, and two nerve cords that run along the sides of the body. Transverse nerves connect the nerve cords together. Illustration D shows the nervous system of a bee. The central ganglia, or brain, is located in the head. The ventral nerve cord runs along the lower part of the body. Bumps of nerve cell bodies, called peripheral ganglia, occur periodically along the nerve cord. Illustration E shows the nervous system of the octopus, which consists of a large brain located between the two eyes, and nerves that run into the body and arms. Two large ganglia exist in the nerves located in the body. Illustration F shows the nervous system of a human, which consists of a central nervous system composed of the brain and spinal cord, and a peripheral nervous system composed of the nerves running into the rest of the body.


Compared to invertebrates, vertebrate nervous systems are more complex, centralized, and specialized. While there is great diversity among different vertebrate nervous systems, they all share a basic structure: a CNS that contains a brain and spinal cord and a PNS made up of peripheral sensory and motor nerves



Neurons & Glia


The nervous system is made up of neurons, specialized cells that can receive and transmit chemical or electrical signals, and glia, cells that provide support functions for the neurons by playing an information processing role that is complementary to neurons. A neuron can be compared to an electrical wire—it transmits a signal from one place to another. Glia can be compared to the workers at the electric company who make sure wires go to the right places, maintain the wires, and take down wires that are broken. Although glia have been compared to workers, recent evidence suggests that also usurp some of the signaling functions of neurons.

There is great diversity in the types of neurons and glia that are present in different parts of the nervous system. 

The nervous system of the common laboratory fly, Drosophila melanogaster, contains around 100,000 neurons, the same number as a lobster. This number compares to 75 million in the mouse. A human brain contains around 86 billion neurons. Despite these very different numbers, the nervous systems of these animals control many of the same behaviors—from basic reflexes to more complicated behaviors like finding food and courting mates. The ability of neurons to communicate with each other as well as with other types of cells underlies all of these behaviors.

Most neurons share the same cellular components. But neurons are also highly specialized—different types of neurons have different sizes and shapes that relate to their functional roles.


Neuron Structure

Like other cells, each neuron has a cell body that contains a nucleus, smooth and rough endoplasmic reticulum, Golgi apparatus, mitochondria, and other cellular components. Neurons also contain unique structures for receiving and sending the electrical signals that make neuronal communication possible. Dendrites are tree-like structures that extend away from the cell body to receive messages from other neurons at specialized junctions called synapses. Although some neurons do not have any dendrites, some types of neurons have multiple dendrites. Dendrites can have small protrusions called dendritic spines, which further increase surface area for possible synaptic connections.

Once a signal is received by the dendrite, it then travels passively to the cell body. An axon is a tube-like structure that propagates (increases) the integrated signal to specialized endings called axon terminals. These terminals in turn synapse on other neurons, or muscle. Chemicals released at axon terminals allow signals to be communicated to these other cells. Neurons usually have one or two axons. Some axons are covered with myelin, which acts as an insulator to minimize dissipation of the electrical signal as it travels down the axon, greatly increasing the speed on conduction. This insulation is important as the axon from a human motor neuron can be as long as a meter (100 cm)—from the base of the spine to the toes. The myelin sheath is not actually part of the neuron. Myelin is produced by glial cells. Along the axon there are periodic gaps in the myelin sheath. These gaps are called nodes of Ranvier and are sites where the signal is “recharged” as it travels along the axon.

It is important to note that a single neuron does not act alone—neuronal communication depends on the connections that neurons make with one another (as well as with other cells, like muscle cells). Dendrites from a single neuron may receive synaptic contact from many other neurons. 


Illustration shows a neuron. The main part of the cell body, called the soma, contains the nucleus. Branch-like dendrites project from three sides of the soma. A long, thin axon projects from the fourth side. The axon branches at the end. The tip of the axon is in close proximity to dendrites of an adjacent nerve cell. The narrow space between the axon and dendrites is called the synapse. Cells called oligodendrocytes are located next to the axon. Projections from the oligodendrocytes wrap around the axon, forming a myelin sheath. The myelin sheath is not continuous, and gaps where the axon is exposed are called nodes of Ranvier.

Neurons contain organelles common to many other cells, such as a nucleus and mitochondria. They also have more specialized structures, including dendrites and axons.

Which of the following statements is false?

  1. The soma is the cell body of a nerve cell.
  2. Myelin sheath provides an insulating layer to the dendrites.
  3. Axons carry the signal from the soma to the target.
  4. Dendrites carry the signal to the soma.


Neurogenesis At one time, scientists believed that people were born with all the neurons they would ever have. Research performed during the last few decades indicates that neurogenesis, the birth of new neurons, continues into adulthood. Neurogenesis was first discovered in songbirds that produce new neurons while learning songs. For mammals, new neurons also play an important role in learning: about 1000 new neurons develop in the hippocampus (a brain structure involved in learning and memory) each day. While most of the new neurons will die, researchers found that an increase in the number of surviving new neurons in the hippocampus correlated with how well rats learned a new task. Interestingly, both exercise and some antidepressant medications also promote neurogenesis in the hippocampus. Stress has the opposite effect. While neurogenesis is quite limited compared to regeneration in other tissues, research in this area may lead to new treatments for disorders such as Alzheimer’s, stroke, and epilepsy.



While glia are often thought of as the supporting cast of the nervous system, the number of glial cells in the brain actually outnumbers the number of neurons by a factor of ten. Neurons would be unable to function without the vital roles that are fulfilled by these glial cells. Glia guide developing neurons to their destinations, buffer ions and chemicals that would otherwise harm neurons, and provide myelin sheaths around axons. Scientists have recently discovered that they also play a role in responding to nerve activity and modulating communication between nerve cells. When glia do not function properly, the result can be disastrous—most brain tumors are caused by mutations in glia.



The nervous system is made up of neurons and glia. Neurons are specialized cells that are capable of sending electrical as well as chemical signals. Most neurons contain dendrites, which receive these signals, and axons that send signals to other neurons or tissues. There are four main types of neurons: unipolar, bipolar, multipolar, and pseudounipolar neurons. Glia are non-neuronal cells in the nervous system that support neuronal development and signaling. There are several types of glia that serve different functions.


Review Questions

Which of the following statements is false?

  1. The soma is the cell body of a nerve cell.
  2. Myelin sheath provides an insulating layer to the dendrites.
  3. Axons carry the signal from the soma to the target.
  4. Dendrites carry the signal to the soma.

Neurons contain ________, which can receive signals from other neurons.

  1. axons
  2. mitochondria
  3. dendrites
  4. Golgi bodies


Nerve Impulse Transmission within a Neuron


For the nervous system to function, neurons must be able to send and receive signals. These signals are possible because each neuron has a charged cellular membrane (a voltage difference between the inside and the outside), and the charge of this membrane can change in response to neurotransmitter molecules released from other neurons and environmental stimuli. To understand how neurons communicate, one must first understand the basis of the baseline or ‘resting’ membrane charge.

Neuronal Charged Membranes

To enter or exit the neuron, ions must pass through special proteins within the neuron membrane, called ion channels that span the membrane. Ion channels have different configurations: open, closed, and inactive, as illustrated in Figure. Some ion channels need to be activated in order to open and allow ions to pass into or out of the cell. These ion channels are sensitive to the environment and can change their shape accordingly. Ion channels that change their structure in response to voltage changes are called voltage-gated ion channels. Voltage-gated ion channels regulate the relative concentrations of different ions inside and outside the cell. The difference in total charge between the inside and outside of the cell is called the membrane potential.

The first image shows a voltage-gated sodium channel that is closed at the resting potential. In response to a nerve impulse the channel opens, allowing sodium to enter the cell. After the impulse the channel enters an inactive state. The channel closes by a different mechanism and, for a brief period does not reopen in response to a new nerve impulse.

Voltage-gated ion channels open in response to changes in membrane voltage. After activation, they become inactivated for a brief period and will no longer open in response to a signal.



Art Connection


Graph plots membrane potential in millivolts versus time. The membrane remains at the resting potential of -70 millivolts until a nerve impulse occurs in step 1. Some sodium channels open, and the potential begins to rapidly climb past the threshold of excitation of -55 millivolts, at which point all the sodium channels open. At the peak action potential, the potential begins to rapidly drop as potassium channels open and sodium channels close. As a result, the membrane repolarizes past the resting membrane potential and becomes hyperpolarized. The membrane potential then gradually returns to normal.

The formation of an action potential can be divided into five steps: (1) A stimulus from a sensory cell or another neuron causes the target cell to depolarize toward the threshold potential. (2) If the threshold of excitation is reached, all Na+ channels open and the membrane depolarizes. (3) At the peak action potential, K+ channels open and K+ begins to leave the cell. At the same time, Na+ channels close. (4) The membrane becomes hyperpolarized as K+ ions continue to leave the cell. The hyperpolarized membrane is in a refractory period and cannot fire. (5) The K+ channels close and the Na+/K+transporter restores the resting potential.


Potassium channel blockers, such as amiodarone and procainamide, which are used to treat abnormal electrical activity in the heart, called cardiac dysrhythmia, impede the movement of K+ through voltage-gated K+ channels. Which part of the action potential would you expect potassium channels to affect?

The action potential travels from the soma down the axon to the axon terminal. The action potential is initiated when a signal from the soma causes the soma-end of the axon membrane to depolarize. The depolarization spreads down the axon. Meanwhile, the membrane at the start of the axon repolarizes. Because potassium channels are open, the membrane cannot depolarize again. The action potential continues to spread down the axon this way.

The action potential is conducted down the axon as the axon membrane depolarizes, then repolarizes.


How Neurons Communicate - Synaptic Transmission

All functions performed by the nervous system—from a simple motor reflex to more advanced functions like making a memory or a decision—require neurons to communicate with one another. While humans use words and body language to communicate, neurons use electrical and chemical signals. Just like a person in a committee, one neuron usually receives and synthesizes messages from multiple other neurons before “making the decision” to send the message on to other neurons.


Synaptic Transmission

The synapse or “gap” is the place where information is transmitted from one neuron to another. Synapses usually form between axon terminals and dendritic spines, but this is not universally true. There are also axon-to-axon, dendrite-to-dendrite, and axon-to-cell body synapses. The neuron transmitting the signal is called the presynaptic neuron, and the neuron receiving the signal is called the postsynaptic neuron. Note that these designations are relative to a particular synapse—most neurons are both presynaptic and postsynaptic. There are two types of synapses: chemical and electrical.


Chemical Synapse

When an action potential reaches the axon terminal it depolarizes the membrane and opens voltage-gated Na+ channels. Na+ ions enter the cell, further depolarizing the presynaptic membrane. This depolarization causes voltage-gated Ca2+ channels to open. Calcium ions entering the cell initiate a signaling cascade that causes small membrane-bound vesicles, called synaptic vesicles, containing neurotransmitter molecules to fuse with the presynaptic membrane. Synaptic vesicles are shown in Figure, which is an image from a scanning electron microscope.

The axon terminal is spherical. A section is sliced off, revealing small blue and orange vesicles just inside.

This pseudocolored image taken with a scanning electron microscope shows an axon terminal that was broken open to reveal synaptic vesicles (blue and orange) inside the neuron. (credit: modification of work by Tina Carvalho, NIH-NIGMS; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

Fusion of a vesicle with the presynaptic membrane causes neurotransmitter to be released into the synaptic cleft, the extracellular space between the presynaptic and postsynaptic membranes, as illustrated in Figure. The neurotransmitter diffuses across the synaptic cleft and binds to receptor proteins on the postsynaptic membrane.

Illustration shows a narrow axon of a presynaptic cell widening into a bulb-like axon terminal. A narrow synaptic cleft separates the axon terminal of the presynaptic cell from the postsynaptic cell. In step 1, an action potential arrives at the axon terminal. In step 2, the action potential causes voltage-gated calcium channels in the axon terminal open, allowing calcium to enter. In step 3, calcium influx causes neurotransmitter-containing synaptic vesicles to fuse with the plasma membrane. Contents of the vesicles are released into the synaptic cleft by exocytosis. In step 4, neurotransmitter diffuses across the synaptic cleft and binds ligand-gated ion channels on the postsynaptic membrane, causing the channels to open. In step 5, the open channels cause ion movement into or out of the cell, resulting in a localized change in membrane potential. In step 6, reuptake by the presynaptic neuron, enzymatic degradation and diffusion reduce neurotransmitter levels, terminating the signal.

Communication at chemical synapses requires release of certain neurotransmitter(s). When the presynaptic membrane is depolarized, voltage-gated Ca2+ channels open and allow Ca2+ to enter the cell. The calcium entry causes synaptic vesicles to fuse with the membrane and release neurotransmitter molecules into the synaptic cleft. The neurotransmitter diffuses across the synaptic cleft and binds to ligand-gated ion channels in the postsynaptic membrane, resulting in a localized depolarization or hyperpolarization of the postsynaptic neuron.

The binding of a specific neurotransmitter causes particular ion channels, in this case ligand-gated channels, on the postsynaptic membrane to open. Neurotransmitters can either have excitatory or inhibitory effects on the postsynaptic membrane, as detailed in Table. For example, when acetylcholine is released at the synapse between a nerve and muscle (called the neuromuscular junction) by a presynaptic neuron, it causes postsynaptic Na+ channels to open. Na+ enters the postsynaptic cell and causes the postsynaptic membrane to depolarize. 

Once neurotransmission has occurred, the neurotransmitter must be removed from the synaptic cleft so the postsynaptic membrane can “reset” and be ready to receive another signal. This can be accomplished in three ways:

1. the neurotransmitter can diffuse away from the synaptic cleft

2. it can be degraded by enzymes in the synaptic cleft


3. it can be recycled (sometimes called reuptake) by the presynaptic neuron.


Several drugs act at this step of neurotransmission. For example, some drugs that are given to Alzheimer’s patients work by inhibiting acetylcholinesterase, the enzyme that degrades acetylcholine. This inhibition of the enzyme essentially increases neurotransmission at synapses that release acetylcholine. Once released, the acetylcholine stays in the cleft and can continually bind and unbind to postsynaptic receptors.

Neurotransmitter Function and Location
AcetylcholineCNS and/or PNS
Biogenic amineDopamine, serotonin, norepinephrineCNS and/or PNS
Amino acidGlycine, glutamate, aspartate, gamma aminobutyric acidCNS
NeuropeptideSubstance P, endorphinsCNS and/or PNS


Electrical Synapse

While electrical synapses are fewer in number than chemical synapses, they are found in all nervous systems and play important and unique roles. The mode of neurotransmission in electrical synapses is quite different from that in chemical synapses. In an electrical synapse, the presynaptic and postsynaptic membranes are very close together and are actually physically connected by channel proteins forming gap junctions. Gap junctions allow current to pass directly from one cell to the next. In addition to the ions that carry this current, other molecules, such as ATP, can diffuse through the large gap junction pores.

Electrical synapses in the thalamus are thought to regulate slow-wave sleep, and disruption of these synapses can cause seizures.


Long-term Depression (LTD) ... FYI Psychology Majors

Long-term depression (LTD) is essentially the reverse of LTP: it is a long-term weakening of a synaptic connection. One mechanism known to cause LTD also involves AMPA receptors. In this situation, calcium that enters through NMDA receptors initiates a different signaling cascade, which results in the removal of AMPA receptors from the postsynaptic membrane, as illustrated in Figure. The decrease in AMPA receptors in the membrane makes the postsynaptic neuron less responsive to glutamate released from the presynaptic neuron. While it may seem counterintuitive, LTD may be just as important for learning and memory as LTP. The weakening and pruning of unused synapses allows for unimportant connections to be lost and makes the synapses that have undergone LTP that much stronger by comparison.

Illustration shows the mechanism of LTP and LTD. Normally, the NMDA receptor in the postsynaptic neuron is activated by glutamate binding, but only after depolarization removes an inhibitory magnesium ion. Once the magnesium is removed, calcium can enter the cell. In response to an increase in intracellular calcium, AMPA receptors are inserted into the plasma membrane, which amplifies the signal resulting in LTP. LDP occurs when low-frequency stimulation results in the activation of a different calcium-signaling cascade that causes AMPA receptors to be removed from the plasma membrane. As a result, the nerve cell becomes less responsive to glutamate.

Calcium entry through postsynaptic NMDA receptors can initiate two different forms of synaptic plasticity: long-term potentiation (LTP) and long-term depression (LTD). LTP arises when a single synapse is repeatedly stimulated. This stimulation causes a calcium- and CaMKII-dependent cellular cascade, which results in the insertion of more AMPA receptors into the postsynaptic membrane. The next time glutamate is released from the presynaptic cell, it will bind to both NMDA and the newly inserted AMPA receptors, thus depolarizing the membrane more efficiently. LTD occurs when few glutamate molecules bind to NMDA receptors at a synapse (due to a low firing rate of the presynaptic neuron). The calcium that does flow through NMDA receptors initiates a different calcineurin and protein phosphatase 1-dependent cascade, which results in the endocytosis of AMPA receptors. This makes the postsynaptic neuron less responsive to glutamate released from the presynaptic neuron.



Neurons have charged membranes because there are different concentrations of ions inside and outside of the cell. Voltage-gated ion channels control the movement of ions into and out of a neuron. When a neuronal membrane is depolarized to at least the threshold of excitation, an action potential is fired. The action potential is then propagated along a myelinated axon to the axon terminals. In a chemical synapse, the action potential causes release of neurotransmitter molecules into the synaptic cleft. Through binding to postsynaptic receptors, the neurotransmitter can cause excitatory or inhibitory postsynaptic potentials by depolarizing or hyperpolarizing, respectively, the postsynaptic membrane. In electrical synapses, the action potential is directly communicated to the postsynaptic cell through gap junctions—large channel proteins that connect the pre-and postsynaptic membranes. Synapses are not static structures and can be strengthened and weakened. Two mechanisms of synaptic plasticity are long-term potentiation and long-term depression.


Review Questions

For a neuron to fire an action potential, its membrane must reach ________.

  1. hyperpolarization
  2. the threshold of excitation
  3. the refractory period
  4. inhibitory postsynaptic potential


What are the main steps in chemical neurotransmission?



The Central Nervous System


By the end of this part of the module, you will be able to:

  • Identify some brain areas on a diagram of the brain
  • Describe the basic functions of the spinal cord and some brain areas



The central nervous system (CNS) is made up of the brain, a part of which is shown in Figure and spinal cord and is covered with three layers of protective coverings called meninges (from the Greek word for membrane). The outermost layer is the dura mater (Latin for “hard mother”). As the Latin suggests, the primary function for this thick layer is to protect the brain and spinal cord. The dura mater also contains vein-like structures that carry blood from the brain back to the heart. The middle layer is the web-like arachnoid mater. The last layer is the pia mater (Latin for “soft or kind mother”), which directly contacts and covers the brain and spinal cord like plastic wrap. The space between the arachnoid and pia maters is filled with cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). CSF is produced by a tissue called choroid plexus in fluid-filled compartments in the CNS called ventricles. The brain floats in CSF, which acts as a cushion and shock absorber and makes the brain neutrally buoyant. CSF also functions to circulate chemical substances throughout the brain and into the spinal cord.

FYI: The entire brain contains only about 8.5 tablespoons of CSF, but CSF is constantly produced. This creates a problem when a ventricle is blocked—the CSF builds up and creates swelling and the brain is pushed against the skull. This swelling condition is called hydrocephalus (“water head”) and can cause seizures, cognitive problems, and even death if a shunt is not inserted to remove the fluid and pressure.

Illustration shows the three meninges that protect the brain. The outermost layer, just beneath the skull, is the dura mater. The dura mater is the thickest meninge, and blood vessels run through it. Beneath the dura mater is the arachnoid mater, and beneath this is the pia mater.

The cerebral cortex is covered by three layers of meninges: the dura, arachnoid, and pia maters. (credit: modification of work by Gray’s Anatomy)




Mammals have larger brain-to-body ratios than other vertebrates. Within mammals, increased cortical folding and surface area is correlated with complex behavior.

Illustrations shows that brains increase in size and amount of cortical folding from rat to cat to chimpanzee to human to dolphin.


The brain is the part of the central nervous system that is contained in the cranial cavity of the skull. It includes the cerebrum, thalamus, hypothalamus, and cerebellum. 



1. Receiveincoming sensory information ... Sensory areas 

2. Control voluntary movement ... Motor areas

3. Learning, language, thought, judgment , cognitive/thought processes ..... Association areas - link sensory and motor areas





Sagittal, or side view of the human brain shows the different lobes of the cerebral cortex. The frontal lobe is at the front center of the brain. The parietal lobe is at the top back part of the brain. The occipital lobe is at the back of the brain, and the temporal lobe is at the bottom center of the brain. The motor cortex is the back of the frontal lobe, and the olfactory bulb is the bottom part. The somatosensory cortex is the front part of the parietal lobe. The brainstem is beneath the temporal lobe, and the cerebellum is beneath the occipital lobe.

The human cerebral cortex includes the frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital lobes.


Diagram shows the location of motor control for various muscle groups on the right hemisphere cerebral cortex. From the top middle of the motor cortex to the bottom right, the order of areas controlled is toes, ankles, knees, hips, trunk, shoulders, elbows, wrists, hands, fingers, thumbs, neck, eyebrows and eyelids, eyeballs, face, lips, jaw, tongue, salivation, chewing and swallowing.




The thalamus (Greek for “inner chamber”), illustrated in Figure, acts as a gateway to and from the cortex. It receives sensory and motor inputs from the body and also receives feedback from the cortex. This feedback mechanism can modulate conscious awareness of sensory and motor inputs depending on the attention and arousal state of the animal. The thalamus helps regulate consciousness, arousal, and sleep states.

A rare genetic disorder called fatal familial insomnia causes the degeneration of thalamic neurons and glia. This disorder prevents affected patients from being able to sleep, among other symptoms, and is eventually fatal.

Illustration shows parts of the limbic system. The thalamus and hypothalamus are located in the cavity in the center of the cerebral cortex. The cingulate gyrus is part of the cerebral cortex that wraps around the upper part of the basal ganglia. The hippocampus is part of the cerebral cortex located beneath the thalamus. The amygdala is located at the end of the basal ganglia.



Below the thalamus is the hypothalamus, shown in Figure. The hypothalamus controls the endocrine system by sending signals to the pituitary gland, a pea-sized endocrine gland that releases several different hormones that affect other glands as well as other cells. This relationship means that the hypothalamus regulates important behaviors that are controlled by these hormones. The hypothalamus is the body’s thermostat—it makes sure key functions like food and water intake, energy expenditure, and body temperature are kept at appropriate levels. Neurons within the hypothalamus also regulate circadian rhythms, sometimes called sleep cycles.


The cerebellum (Latin for “little brain”), shown in Figure, sits at the base of the brain on top of the brainstem. The cerebellum controls balance and aids in coordinating movement and learning new motor tasks.




The brainstem, illustrated in Figure, connects the rest of the brain with the spinal cord. It consists of the midbrain, medulla oblongata, and the pons. Motor and sensory neurons extend through the brainstem allowing for the relay of signals between the brain and spinal cord. Ascending neural pathways cross in this section of the brain allowing the left hemisphere of the cerebrum to control the right side of the body and vice versa. The brainstem coordinates motor control signals sent from the brain to the body. The brainstem controls several important functions of the body including alertness, arousal, breathing, blood pressure, digestion, heart rate, swallowing, walking, and sensory and motor information integration.


Spinal Cord


Connecting to the brainstem and extending down the body through the spinal column is the spinal cord, shown in Figure. The spinal cord is a thick bundle of nerve tissue that carries information about the body to the brain and from the brain to the body. The spinal cord is contained within the bones of the vertebrate column but is able to communicate signals to and from the body through its connections with spinal nerves (part of the peripheral nervous system). A cross-section of the spinal cord looks like a white oval containing a gray butterfly-shape, as illustrated in Figure. Myelinated axons make up the “white matter” and neuron and glial cell bodies make up the “gray matter.” Gray matter is also composed of interneurons, which connect two neurons each located in different parts of the body. Axons and cell bodies in the dorsal (facing the back of the animal) spinal cord convey mostly sensory information from the body to the brain. Axons and cell bodies in the ventral (facing the front of the animal) spinal cord primarily transmit signals controlling movement from the brain to the body.

The Peripheral Nervous System

The spinal cord also controls motor reflexes. These reflexes are quick, unconscious movements—like automatically removing a hand from a hot object. Reflexes are so fast because they involve local synaptic connections. For example, the knee reflex that a doctor tests during a routine physical is controlled by a single synapse between a sensory neuron and a motor neuron. While a reflex may only require the involvement of one or two synapses, synapses with interneurons in the spinal column transmit information to the brain to convey what happened (the knee jerked, or the hand was hot).

In the United States, there around 10,000 spinal cord injuries each year. Because the spinal cord is the information superhighway connecting the brain with the body, damage to the spinal cord can lead to paralysis. The extent of the paralysis depends on the location of the injury along the spinal cord and whether the spinal cord was completely severed. For example, if the spinal cord is damaged at the level of the neck, it can cause paralysis from the neck down, whereas damage to the spinal column further down may limit paralysis to the legs. Spinal cord injuries are notoriously difficult to treat because spinal nerves do not regenerate, although ongoing research suggests that stem cell transplants may be able to act as a bridge to reconnect severed nerves. Researchers are also looking at ways to prevent the inflammation that worsens nerve damage after injury. One such treatment is to pump the body with cold saline to induce hypothermia. This cooling can prevent swelling and other processes that are thought to worsen spinal cord injuries.




The vertebrate central nervous system contains the brain and the spinal cord, which are covered and protected by three meninges. The brain contains structurally and functionally defined regions. In mammals, these include the cortex (which can be broken down into four primary functional lobes: frontal, temporal, occipital, and parietal), basal ganglia, thalamus, hypothalamus, limbic system, cerebellum, and brainstem—although structures in some of these designations overlap. While functions may be primarily localized to one structure in the brain, most complex functions, like language and sleep, involve neurons in multiple brain regions. The spinal cord is the information superhighway that connects the brain with the rest of the body through its connections with peripheral nerves. It transmits sensory and motor input and also controls motor reflexes.




The Peripheral Nervous System

By the end of this part of the module, you will be able to:

  • Describe the functions of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems
  • Describe the organization and function of the sensory-somatic nervous system


The peripheral nervous system (PNS) is the connection between the central nervous system and the rest of the body. The CNS is like the power plant of the nervous system. It creates the signals that control the functions of the body. The PNS is like the wires that go to individual houses. Without those “wires,” the signals produced by the CNS could not control the body (and the CNS would not be able to receive sensory information from the body either).

The PNS can be broken down into the autonomic nervous system, which controls bodily functions without conscious control, and the sensory-somatic nervous system, which transmits sensory information from the skin, muscles, and sensory organs to the CNS and sends motor commands from the CNS to the muscles.


Autonomic Nervous System

Autonomic responses are mediated by the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems, which are antagonistic to one another. The sympathetic system activates the “fight or flight” response, while the parasympathetic system activates the “rest and digest” response. The autonomic nervous system serves as the relay between the CNS and the internal organs. It controls the lungs, the heart, smooth muscle, and exocrine and endocrine glands. The autonomic nervous system controls these organs largely without conscious control; it can continuously monitor the conditions of these different systems and implement changes as needed.


There are two divisions of the autonomic nervous system that often have opposing effects: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems often have opposing effects on target organs. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the “fight or flight” response that occurs when an animal encounters a dangerous situation. One way to remember this is to think of the surprise a person feels when encountering a snake (“snake” and “sympathetic” both begin with “s”). Examples of functions controlled by the sympathetic nervous system include an accelerated heart rate and inhibited digestion. These functions help prepare an organism’s body for the physical strain required to escape a potentially dangerous situation or to fend off a predator. The parasympathetic nervous system resets organ function after the sympathetic nervous system is activated (the common adrenaline dump you feel after a ‘fight-or-flight’ event). Effects of acetylcholine release on target organs include slowing of heart rate, lowered blood pressure, and stimulation of digestion.

Illustration shows the effects of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems on target organs, and the placement of the preganglionic neurons that mediate these effects. The parasympathetic system causes pupils and bronchi to constrict, slows the heart rate, and stimulates salivation, digestion, and bile secretion. Preganglionic neurons that mediate these effects are all located in the brain stem. Preganglionic neurons of the parasympathetic system that are located in the sacral cause the bladder to contract. The sympathetic system causes pupils and bronchi to dilate, increases heart rate, inhibits digestion, stimulates the breakdown of glycogen and the secretion of adrenaline and noradrenaline, and inhibits contraction of the bladder. The preganglionic neurons that mediate these effects are all located in the spine.


Sensory-Somatic Nervous System

The sensory-somatic nervous system is made up of cranial and spinal nerves and contains both sensory and motor neurons. Sensory neurons transmit sensory information from the skin, skeletal muscle, and sensory organs to the CNS. Motor neurons transmit messages about desired movement from the CNS to the muscles to make them contract. Without its sensory-somatic nervous system, an animal would be unable to process any information about its environment (what it sees, feels, hears, and so on) and could not control motor movements. Unlike the autonomic nervous system, which has two synapses between the CNS and the target organ, sensory and motor neurons have only one synapse—one ending of the neuron is at the organ and the other directly contacts a CNS neuron. Acetylcholine is the main neurotransmitter released at these synapses.

Humans have 12 cranial nerves, nerves that emerge from or enter the skull (cranium), as opposed to the spinal nerves, which emerge from the vertebral column. Each cranial nerve is accorded a name, which are detailed in Figure. Some cranial nerves transmit only sensory information. For example, the olfactory nerve transmits information about smells from the nose to the brainstem. Other cranial nerves transmit almost solely motor information. For example, the oculomotor nerve controls the opening and closing of the eyelid and some eye movements. Other cranial nerves contain a mix of sensory and motor fibers. For example, the glossopharyngeal nerve has a role in both taste (sensory) and swallowing (motor).

Illustration shows the underside of the brain. The twelve cranial nerves cluster around the brain stem, and are symmetrically located on each side. The olfactory nerve is short and lobe-like, and is located closest to the front. Directly behind this is the optic nerve, then the oculomotor nerve. All these nerves are located in front of the brain stem. The trigeminal nerve, which is the thickest, is located on either side of the brain stem. It forms three branches shortly after leaving the brain. The trochlear nerve is a small nerve in front of the trigeminal nerve. Behind the brain stem are the smaller facial, vestibulocochlear, glossopharyngeal and hypoglossal nerves. The nerve furthest back is the accessory nerve.

The human brain contains 12 cranial nerves that receive sensory input and control motor output for the head and neck.

Spinal nerves transmit sensory and motor information between the spinal cord and the rest of the body. Each of the 31 spinal nerves (in humans) contains both sensory and motor axons. 

Illustration shows a cross section of the spinal cord. The gray matter forms an X inside the white matter. A spinal nerve extends from the left arm of the X, and another extends from the left leg of the X. The two nerves join together to the left of the spine. The right arm and leg of the X form a symmetrical nerve. The part of the nerve that exits from the leg of the X is called the ventral root, and the part that exists from the arm of the X is called the dorsal root. The ventral root is on the belly side, and the dorsal root is on the back side. The dorsal root ganglion is a bulge halfway between where the nerve leaves the spine and where the dorsal and ventral roots join. Sensory neuron somas cluster in the dorsal root. Motor neuron somas cluster in the gray matter in the leg of the X. Motor neuron axons are bundled in the ventral root.

Spinal nerves contain both sensory and motor axons. The somas of sensory neurons are located in dorsal root ganglia. The somas of motor neurons are found in the ventral portion of the gray matter of the spinal cord.



The peripheral nervous system contains both the autonomic and sensory-somatic nervous systems. The autonomic nervous system provides unconscious control over visceral functions and has two divisions: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is activated in stressful situations to prepare the animal for a “fight or flight” response. The parasympathetic nervous system is active during restful periods. The sensory-somatic nervous system is made of cranial and spinal nerves that transmit sensory information from skin and muscle to the CNS and motor commands from the CNS to the muscles.




    Review Questions

    Activation of the sympathetic nervous system causes:

    1. increased blood flow into the skin
    2. a decreased heart rate
    3. an increased heart rate
    4. increased digestion


    What are the main differences between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system?


    What are the main functions of the sensory-somatic nervous system?


    What are the main functions of the spinal cord?


    Draw a chart of the different parts of the nervous system of humans?


    Optional Educational Materials


    Nervous System Disorders.