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The nervous system allows the animal to quickly detect, communicate and co-

ordinate information about its external and internal environment so it can make
efficient appropriate responses for survival and/or reproduction.
The two major parts of our nervous system are the central nervous system
(CNS) and peripheral nervous system (PNS).
The CNS is made of the brain and spinal cord.

The cranial nerves, spinal nerves and ganglia make up the PNS. The cranial
nerves connect to the brain. The cranial and spinal nerves contain the axons
(fibres) of sensory and motor nerve cells.

Nerve cells areas are also known as neurons. Neurons are the basic unit of the
nervous system. They carry information or impulses as electrical signals from
one place to another in the body. There are 3 types of neurons:

Sensory Neurons- Sensory neurons carry electrical signals (impulses) from

receptors or sense organs to the CNS. Sensory neurons are also called
afferent neurons. The cell body of sensory neurons is outside the CNS in

Motor Neurons- Motor neurons carry

impulses from the CNS to effector organs
Motor neurons are also called efferent neurons.
The cell bodies of motor neurons are inside the CNS.

Interneurons- These are also called intermediate, relay, or associative

neurons. They carry information between sensory and motor neurons. They are
found in the CNS.

The Structure of Neurons

A Neuron consists of THREE MAIN PARTS:

A. CELL BODY - The largest part, contains the nucleus and much of the
cytoplasm (area between the nucleus and the cell membrane), most of the
metabolic activity of the cell, including the generation of ATP (Adenine
Triphosphate Compound that Stores Energy) and synthesis of protein.
B. DENDRITES - Short branch extensions spreading out from the cell body.
Dendrites Receive STIMULUS (Action Potentials) and carry IMPULSES from the
BODY. Each neuron has only ONE AXON. The Axon Ends in a series of small
swellings called AXON TERMINALS.
Neurons may have Dozens or even Hundreds of DENDRITES but usually ONLY
Sensory Neuron or Afferent Neuron– Moving away from a central
organ or point. Relays messages from receptors to the brain or spinal

Motor Neuron or Efferent Neuron – Moving toward a central organ or point.

Relays messages from the brain or spinal cord to the muscles and organs.
Interneurons- Relay message from sensory neurone to motor neurone. Make
up the brain and spinal cord.
Sensory neuron Interneuron Motor Neuron

Length of Fibers Long dendrites and short Short dendrites and short or Short dendrites and long
axon long axons axons

Location Cell body and dendrite are Entirely within the spinal cord Dendrites and the cell body
outside of the spinal cord; the or CNS are located in the spinal cord;
cell body is located in a the axon is outside of the
dorsal root ganglion spinal cord

Function Conduct impulse to the spinal Interconnect the sensory Conduct impulse to an effector
cord neuron with appropriate motor (muscle or gland)

The Axons of most Neurons are covered with a Lipid Layer known as the
MYELIN SHEATH. The Myelin Sheath both Insulates and Speeds Up transmission of
Action Potentials through the Axon. In the Peripheral Nervous System, Myelin is produced by
SCHWANN CELLS, which surround the Axon. GAPS (NODES) in the Myelin Sheath along
the length of the Axon are known as the NODES OF RANVIER. These gaps allow the
impulses to travel faster than if they travelled along the entire length of the neuron.
The Axon ends with many small swellings called AXON TERMINALS. At these
Terminals the neuron may make contact with the DENDRITES of another neuron, with a


The Synapse
The points of contact at which impulses are passed from one cell to another are
known as THE SYNAPTIC CLEFT OR SYNAPSE. Neurons that transmit
impulses to other neurons DO NOT actually touch one another. The Small Gap or
Space between the axon of one neuron and the dendrites or cell body on the
next neuron is called the Synapse. One importance of the presence of Synapses
is that they ensure one-way transmission of impulses in a living person. A nerve
impulse CANNOT go backward across a Synapse.
The Axon Terminals at a Synapse contain tiny vesicles, or sacs called
neurotransmitter swellings. These tiny swellings are filled with CHEMICALS
known as NEUROTRANSMITTERS. Acetylcholine (Ach) and noradrenialin, also
called norepinephrine, are 2 of the main neurotransmitters.
A NEUROTRANSMITTER is a chemical substance that is used by one neuron to
signal another. Some are made in the cell body while others are made in the
neurotransmitter swellings. The impulse is changed from and Electrical Impulse
to a Chemical Impulse (Electrochemical Impulses). The molecules of the
neurotransmitter diffuse across the gap and attach themselves to SPECIAL
RECEPTORS on the membrane of the neuron receiving the impulse. This now
causes the electrical impulse to be regenerated. After the neurotransmitter
relays it message it is rapidly REMOVED or DESTROYED, thus halting its effect.
ENZYMES, taken up again by the axon terminal and recycled, may break down
the molecules of the neurotransmitter or they may simply diffuse away.
Synapses are the slowest part of the nervous system. The advantage to having
many neurons, with gaps between them, is that we can control and receive
information from different parts of the body at different times. They also ensure
one-way transmission of impulses in a living person. The number of synapses
associated with each neuron varies from 1000 for a cell body of the spinal cord
to up to 10,000 for cell bodies in the brain.
To Review: The main functions of the synapse are:

1. To transmit impulses from one neuron to another neuron or to an effector.

2. To control the direction of the impulse. Impulses can only go one way. The
neurotransmitter swellings are only found on the presynaptic side of the
synapse. Thus, the impulse can only travel from the presynaptic side to the
postsynaptic side.
3. To prevent over stimulation of effectors. Constant stimulation causes
neurotransmitter production to cease. In this way we get used to stimuli such as
pain or noise.
4. Certain chemicals can block the impulse. This is why doctors prescribe certain
drugs for pain relief.


Nerve Impulses

Nerve impulses are electrical as they run along the nerve. They then become chemical as
the travel over the synaptic cleft.
When a neuron receives a stimulus of sufficient strength the electrical current moves along
the dendrite and axon to the neurotransmitter swellings. The movement of ions causes these
electrical impulses.

Resting Neuron
When a neuron is not carrying an impulse the inside of the axon has a negative charge and
the outside has a positive charge.
The threshold is the minimum stimulus needed to cause an impulse to be carried. It must be
of sufficient strength. Not all stimuli cause an impulse. A stimulus below the threshold has no
effect on the neuron. Some people have higher thresholds for pain, heat or other stimuli. This
means they can tolerate a stronger stimulus before their nervous system reacts with an


“All Or Nothing” Law

The “All or Nothing” Law states that if the threshold is reached an impulse is carried, but if
the threshold is not reached then there will be no impulse. It doesn’t matter how strong the
stimulus. The same impulse is sent regardless of strength. The sensitivity to mild or severe
pain depends on the number of neurons stimulated as well as the frequency of their


Movement of the Impulse

When the threshold is reached the axon or dendrite changes. The inside, at the point of the
stimulation, becomes positive and the outside becomes negative. This creates unlike
charges along the length of the neuron and the impulse travels along the neuron. This is
called the action potential. Once the impulse moves along, the area behind the impulse is
changed back to its normal negative (resting) state.

Below is a cross-section of an axon, with an action potential (AP) moving from

left to right. The AP has not yet reached point 4; the membrane there is still at
rest. At point 3, positive sodium ions are moving in from the adjacent region,
depolarising the region; the sodium channels are about to open. Point 2 is at the
peak of the AP; the sodium channels are open and ions are flowing into the
axon. The AP has passed by point 1; the sodium channels are inactivated, and
the membrane is hyperpolarized.

Refractory Period
While the ions are moving in and out of each region of the neuron, there is a brief period
during which the neuron is unable to have another action potential. This delay is
called the refractory period.
In Summary:

The resting potential

tells about what happens when a neuron is at rest. An action potential occurs
when a neuron sends information down an axon, away from the cell body.
Neuroscientists use other words, such as a "spike" or an "impulse" for the action
potential. The action potential is an explosion of electrical activity that is created
by a depolarising current. This means that some event (a stimulus) causes the
resting potential to move toward 0 mV. When the depolarisation reaches about
-55 mV a neuron will fire an action potential. This is the threshold. If the
neuron does not reach this critical threshold level, then no action potential will
fire. Also, when the threshold level is reached, an action potential of a fixed sized
will always fire...for any given neuron, the size of the action potential is always
the same. There are no big or small action potentials in one nerve cell - all action
potentials are the same size. Therefore, the neuron either does not reach the
threshold or a full action potential is fired - this is the "ALL OR NONE" principle.

Neural Impulse Terms

A. Neural impulse - takes the same path all the time - it is a process of
conducting information from a stimulus by the dendrite of one neuron and
carrying it through the axon and on to the next neuron. Let's take a look at
what's involved in the neural impulse:
1) ions - we have positively (+) and negatively (-) charged particles called ions.
For the neural impulse, however, we are only concerned with Sodium (Na+) and
Potassium (K+).
2) selectively permeable membrane - the outer membrane of the neuron is
not impermeable, but instead selectively allows some ions to pass back and
forth. The way it selects is easy - it has pores that are only so big. So, only very
small ions can fit through. Any large ions simply can't pass through the small
3) charge of the neuron - inside the neuron, the ions are mostly negatively
charged. Outside the neuron, the ions are mostly positively charged. In this state
(with mostly negative charge inside and positive charge on the outside) the
neuron is said to be Polarized.
4) resting potential - while the neuron is Polarized, it is in a stable, negatively
charged, inactive state The charge is approx. -70 millivolts, and it means that
the neuron is ready to fire (receive and send information).
5) stimulus - eventually, some stimulation occurs (ex. hand to close to a
flame), and the information is brought into the body by a sensory receptor and
brought to the dendrites of a neuron.
6) action potential - once the stimulation (the heat) reaches a certain
threshold (come to later) the neural membrane opens at one area and allows the
positively charged ions to rush in and the negative ions to rush out. The charge
inside the neuron then rises to approx. +40 mv. This only occurs for a brief
moment, but it is enough to create a domino effect.
7) repolarization - the neuron tries to quickly restore its charge by pumping
out the positively charged ions and bringing back the negative ones. This can
occur fast enough to allow up to 1,000 action potentials per second.
8) absolute refractory period - after the action potential occurs, there is a
brief period during which the neuron is unable to have another action potential.
Then the charge inside the neuron drops to about -90 mv (refractory period)
before restoring itself to normal.
9) speed of an action potential - can travel from 10-120 meters/sec. The
speed depends on whether a myelin sheath is present or not. If there is no
myelin sheath then the impulse travels all along the axon or dendrite. This acts
to slow down the impulse. If there is a myelin sheath then the impulse charges
can only move in and out at the nodes of Ranvier. These impulses move more
rapidly than the non-myelinated neurons. Also, the larger the diameter of the
axon or dendrite the faster the impulse.
10) all-or-none law - a neural impulse will either occur or not. There is no in
between. Once the threshold is reached, there is no going back, the neural
impulse will begin and will go through the complete cycle.
11) Threshold - a dividing line that determines if a stimulus is strong enough to
warrant action. If the threshold is reached, an action potential will occur.


The Central Nervous System

The Brain
After sensory neurons carry impulses most eventually reach the brain. The brain
acts to interpret, sort, and process the incoming impulses and then decide on a
The brain’s grey matter is composed of cell bodies and synapses. The white matter is
made of nerve fibres (axons and dendrites). There are about 12,000 million neurons that
form the brain.
3 membranes called the meninges protect the brain and the spinal cord. The space between
the inner 2 membranes is filled with a liquid called cerebrospinal fluid. There is a total of
about 100 mL of this liquid in the CNS. It protects the CNS by acting as a shock absorber.
Inflammation of the meninges causes a sometimes-serious condition called meningitis.
Refer to your text for a description of viral and bacterial meningitis.

Structure of the Brain


The Cerebrum
1. Largest part of the brain
2. Contains about 75% of the total neurons of the brain
3. Divided into 2 halves: The right and left cerebral hemispheres
4. Control:
a. voluntary movements
b. receiving and interpreting impulses from sense organs
c. thinking
d. intelligence
e. memory
f. language
g. emotions
h. judgement
i. personality

The right hemisphere controls the left side of the body while the left hemisphere
controls the right side of the body.
Each hemisphere is specialised for different functions.
The left side is dominant for: The right side is dominant for:
1. hand use 1. art
2. language 2. music
3. mathematics 3. shape recognition
4. analysis 4. emotional responses
5. logic

The outer part of the cerebrum is grey and called the cerebral cortex. It is
divided into 4 lobes. Each lobe controls specific functions:

Notice that there are many infolds of the cerebral cortex. This gives it a larger surface area.
This allows for more interconnections between different parts of the brain and for more
The inner part of the cerebrum is white matter. It is made of millions of nerve fibres. These
nerve fibres connect different areas of the cerebral cortex as well as the 2 sides of the brain.

The Cerebellum
1. Second largest part of the brain
2. Heavily folded
3. Controls muscular coordination
4. Allows for smooth, refined muscular action
5. Responses involuntary once they are learned


The Medulla Oblongata

1. Connects the brain with the spinal cord
2. Contains clusters of nerve cells that control involuntary actions such as:
a. breathing
b. blood pressure
c. swallowing
d. coughing
e. salivation
f. sneezing
g. vomiting

The Thalamus


1. Located below the cerebrum

2. Acts as a sorting centre for the brain. It relays incoming impulses to the
relevant part of the brain.
The Hypothalamus


1. Lies below the thalamus

2. Regulates the internal environment (homeostasis) of the body by
a. blood temperature
b. appetite
c. thirst
d. osmoregulation
e. blood pressure
3. Regulates the production of many hormones of the pituitary gland.


The Spinal Cord

The spinal cord is a long, fragile tubelike structure that begins at the end of the
brain stem and continues down almost to the bottom of the spine (spinal
column). The spinal cord consists of nerves that carry both incoming and
outgoing messages between the brain and the rest of the body. It is also the
centre for reflexes, such as the knee jerk reflex. Like the brain, the spinal cord is
covered by three layers of tissue called meninges. The spinal cord and meninges are
contained in the spinal canal, which runs through the centre of the spine. In most adults, the
spine is composed of 26 vertebrae, which are the individual bones of the back. Just as the
skull protects the brain, vertebrae protect the spinal cord. The vertebrae are separated by
disks made of cartilage, which act as cushions, reducing the forces generated by movements
such as walking and jumping.

Like the brain, the spinal cord consists of grey and white matter. The
butterfly-shaped centre of the cord consists of grey matter. The grey
matter contains dendrites and cell bodies. The front or ventral root
contain motor nerves, which transmit information from the brain or
spinal cord to muscles, stimulating movement. The back or dorsal
root contain sensory nerves, which transmit sensory information from
other parts of the body through the spinal cord to the brain. The
surrounding white matter contains columns of axons that carry
sensory information to the brain from the rest of the body (ascending
tracts) and columns that carry impulses from the brain to the muscles
(descending tracts). There are a total of 31 pairs of spinal nerves.
These carry impulses to and from the spinal cord.

Reflex Action
A reflex is the simplest, quickest form of activity in the nervous system. It is an
automatic, involuntary, unthinking response to a stimulus. The reflex arc are the
neurons that form the pathway of the impulses of a reflex. Examples of reflex
actions are breathing, eye blinking, iris size, and many protective actions such as
moving away from a burning flame. (see below)

When we move our finger away from a flame we are performing a withdrawl reflex. These
satge of this reflex are as follows:

1. The finger is the receptor. It contains sensory neurons.

2. Sensory neurons carry the impulse to the sensory nerves in the dorsal
3. An interneuron carries the impulse across the spinal cord to the motor
neurons in the ventral root. At the same time, another neuron takes the
impulse to the brain.
4. The motor neurons take the impulse to the effector (muscle) and the finger is
pulled away. At the same time, the impulse reaches the brain and we are aware
of the pain.
Another reflex action is The Knee Jerk Reflex:
The knee jerk reflex is one that you may have had tested at a check up at the
doctor's office. In this test, the doctor hits your knee at a spot just below your
kneecap and your leg kicks out. Try it! Have a partner sit with his or her legs
crossed so that his leg can swing freely. Hit his leg just below the knee with the
side of your hand. DO NOT USE A HAMMER!!!! The leg will kick out immediately
(if you hit the right place). The knee jerk reflex is called a monosynaptic reflex
because there is only one synapse in the circuit needed to complete the reflex. It
only takes about 50 milliseconds between the tap and the start of the leg kick.
That is fast! The tap below the knee causes the thigh muscle to stretch.
Information is then sent to the spinal cord. After one synapse in the ventral horn
of the spinal cord, the information is sent back out to the muscle...and there you
have the reflex.