Human Organ Systems - Nervous System (Brain, Spinal Cord, Nerves)
The nervous system is an organ system containing a network of specialized cells called neurons that coordinate the actions of an animal and transmit signals between different parts of its body. In most animals the nervous system consists of two parts, central and peripheral. The central nervous system of vertebrates (such as humans) contains the brain, spinal cord, and retina. The peripheral nervous system consists of sensory neurons, clusters of neurons called ganglia, and nerves connecting them to each other and to the central nervous system. These regions are all interconnected by means of complex neural pathways. The enteric nervous system, a subsystem of the peripheral nervous system, has the capacity, even when severed from the rest of the nervous system through its primary connection by the vagus nerve, to function independently in controlling the gastrointestinal system.
Neurons send signals to other cells as electrochemical waves travelling along thin fibres called axons, which cause chemicals called neurotransmitters to be released at junctions called synapses. A cell that receives a synaptic signal may be excited, inhibited, or otherwise modulated. Sensory neurons are activated by physical stimuli impinging on them, and send signals that inform the central nervous system of the state of the body and the external environment. Motor neurons, situated either in the central nervous system or in peripheral ganglia, connect the nervous system to muscles or other effector organs. Central neurons, which in vertebrates greatly outnumber the other types, make all of their input and output connections with other neurons. The interactions of all these types of neurons form neural circuits that generate an organism's perception of the world and determine its behaviour. Along with neurons, the nervous system contains other specialized cells called glial cells (or simply glia), which provide structural and metabolic support.
Nervous systems are found in most multicellular animals, but vary greatly in complexity. Sponges have no nervous system, although they have homologs of many genes that play crucial roles in nervous system function, and are capable of several whole-body responses, including a primitive form of locomotion. Placozoans and mesozoans—other simple animals that are not classified as part of the subkingdom Eumetazoa—also have no nervous system. In Radiata (radially symmetric animals such as jellyfish) the nervous system consists of a simple nerve net. Bilateria, which include the great majority of vertebrates and invertebrates, all have a nervous system containing a brain, one central cord (or two running in parallel), and peripheral nerves. The size of the bilaterian nervous system ranges from a few hundred cells in the simplest worms, to on the order of 100 billion cells in humans. Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system.
The human brain is the centre of the human nervous system. Enclosed in the cranium, it has the same general structure as the brains of other mammals, but is over three times as large as the brain of a typical mammal with an equivalent body size. Most of the expansion comes from the cerebral cortex, a convoluted layer of neural tissue that covers the surface of the forebrain. Especially expanded are the frontal lobes, which are associated with executive functions such as self-control, planning, reasoning, and abstract thought. The portion of the brain devoted to vision is also greatly enlarged in human beings.
Brain evolution, from the earliest shrewlike mammals through primates to hominids, is marked by a steady increase in encephalization, or the ratio of brain to body size. The human brain has been estimated to contain 50–100 billion (1011) neurons, of which about 10 billion (1010) are cortical pyramidal cells. These cells pass signals to each other via as many as 1000 trillion (1015, 1 quadrillion) synaptic connections. However, recent research has shown that the modern human brain has actually been shrinking over the last 28,000 years.
The brain monitors and regulates the body's actions and reactions. It continuously receives sensory information, and rapidly analyzes these data and then responds, controlling bodily actions and functions. The brainstem controls breathing, heart rate, and other autonomic processes that are independent of conscious brain functions. The neocortex is the centre of higher-order thinking, learning, and memory. The cerebellum is responsible for the body's balance, posture, and the coordination of movement.
In spite of the fact that it is protected by the thick bones of the skull, suspended in cerebrospinal fluid, and isolated from the bloodstream by the blood-brain barrier, the delicate nature of the human brain makes it susceptible to many types of damage and disease. The most common forms of physical damage are closed head injuries such as a blow to the head, a stroke, or poisoning by a wide variety of chemicals that can act as neurotoxins. Infection of the brain is rare because of the barriers that protect it, but is very serious when it occurs. The human brain is also susceptible to degenerative disorders, such as Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer's disease. A number of psychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia and depression, are widely thought to be caused at least partially by brain dysfunctions, although the nature of such brain anomalies is not well understood.
The spinal cord is a long, thin, tubular bundle of nervous tissue and support cells that extends from the brain (the medulla oblongata specifically). The brain and spinal cord together make up the central nervous system. The spinal cord begins at the Occipital bone and extends down to the space between the first and second lumbar vertebrae; it does not extend the entire length of the vertebral column. It is around 45 cm (18 in) in men and around 43 cm (17 in) long in women. Also, the spinal cord has a varying width, ranging from 1/2 inch thick in the cervical and lumbar regions to 1/4 inch thick in the thoracic area. The enclosing bony vertebral column protects the relatively shorter spinal cord. The spinal cord functions primarily in the transmission of neural signals between the brain and the rest of the body but also contains neural circuits that can independently control numerous reflexes and central pattern generators. The spinal cord has three major functions: A. Serve as a conduit for motor information, which travels down the spinal cord. B. Serve as a conduit for sensory information, which travels up the spinal cord. C. Serve as a centre for coordinating certain reflexes.
A peripheral nerve, or simply nerve, is an enclosed, cable-like bundle of peripheral axons (the long, slender projections of neurons). A nerve provides a common pathway for the electrochemical nerve impulses that are transmitted along each of the axons. Nerves are found only in the peripheral nervous system. In the central nervous system, the analogous structures are known as tracts. Neurons are sometimes called nerve cells, though this term is potentially misleading since many neurons do not form nerves, and nerves also include non-neuronal Schwann cells that coat the axons in myelin.
Each nerve is a cordlike structure that contains many axons. These axons are often referred to as “fibres”. Within a nerve, each axon is surrounded by a layer of connective tissue called the endoneurium. The axons are bundled together into groups called fascicles, and each fascicle is wrapped in a layer of connective tissue called the perineurium. Finally, the entire nerve is wrapped in a layer of connective tissue called the epineurium.
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