The development of the nervous system starts early in embryonic development. The outer layer of the embryo, the ectoderm, gives rise to the skin and the nervous system. A specialized region of this layer, the neuroectoderm, becomes a groove that folds in and becomes the neural tube beneath the dorsal surface of the embryo. The anterior end of the neural tube develops into the brain, and the posterior region becomes the spinal cord. Tissues at the edges of the neural groove, when it closes off, are called the neural crest and migrate through the embryo to give rise to PNS structures as well as some non-nervous tissues.
The brain develops from this early tube structure and gives rise to specific regions of the adult brain. As the neural tube grows and differentiates, it enlarges into three vesicles that correspond to the forebrain, midbrain, and hindbrain regions of the adult brain. Later in development, two of these three vesicles differentiate further, resulting in five vesicles. Those five vesicles can be aligned with the four major regions of the adult brain. The cerebrum is formed directly from the telencephalon. The diencephalon is the only region that keeps its embryonic name. The mesencephalon, metencephalon, and myelencephalon become the brain stem. The cerebellum also develops from the metencephalon and is a separate region of the adult brain.
The spinal cord develops out of the rest of the neural tube and retains the tube structure, with the nervous tissue thickening and the hollow center becoming a very small central canal through the cord. The rest of the hollow center of the neural tube corresponds to open spaces within the brain called the ventricles, where cerebrospinal fluid is found.
The adult brain is separated into four major regions: the cerebrum, the diencephalon, the brain stem, and the cerebellum. The cerebrum is the largest portion and contains the cerebral cortex and subcortical nuclei. It is divided into two halves by the longitudinal fissure.
The cortex is separated into the frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital lobes. The frontal lobe is responsible for motor functions, from planning movements through executing commands to be sent to the spinal cord and periphery. The most anterior portion of the frontal lobe is the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with aspects of personality through its influence on motor responses in decision-making.
The other lobes are responsible for sensory functions. The parietal lobe is where somatosensation is processed. The occipital lobe is where visual processing begins, although the other parts of the brain can contribute to visual function. The temporal lobe contains the cortical area for auditory processing, but also has regions crucial for memory formation.
Nuclei beneath the cerebral cortex, known as the subcortical nuclei, are responsible for augmenting cortical functions. The basal nuclei receive input from cortical areas and compare it with the general state of the individual through the activity of a dopamine-releasing nucleus. The output influences the activity of part of the thalamus that can then increase or decrease cortical activity that often results in changes to motor commands. The basal forebrain is responsible for modulating cortical activity in attention and memory. The limbic system includes deep cerebral nuclei that are responsible for emotion and memory.
The diencephalon includes the thalamus and the hypothalamus, along with some other structures. The thalamus is a relay between the cerebrum and the rest of the nervous system. The hypothalamus coordinates homeostatic functions through the autonomic and endocrine systems.
The brain stem is composed of the midbrain, pons, and medulla. It controls the head and neck region of the body through the cranial nerves. There are control centers in the brain stem that regulate the cardiovascular and respiratory systems.
The cerebellum is connected to the brain stem, primarily at the pons, where it receives a copy of the descending input from the cerebrum to the spinal cord. It can compare this with sensory feedback input through the medulla and send output through the midbrain that can correct motor commands for coordination.
The CNS has a privileged blood supply established by the blood-brain barrier. Establishing this barrier are anatomical structures that help to protect and isolate the CNS. The arterial blood to the brain comes from the internal carotid and vertebral arteries, which both contribute to the unique circle of Willis that provides constant perfusion of the brain even if one of the blood vessels is blocked or narrowed. That blood is eventually filtered to make a separate medium, the CSF, that circulates within the spaces of the brain and then into the surrounding space defined by the meninges, the protective covering of the brain and spinal cord.
The blood that nourishes the brain and spinal cord is behind the glial-cell–enforced blood-brain barrier, which limits the exchange of material from blood vessels with the interstitial fluid of the nervous tissue. Thus, metabolic wastes are collected in cerebrospinal fluid that circulates through the CNS. This fluid is produced by filtering blood at the choroid plexuses in the four ventricles of the brain. It then circulates through the ventricles and into the subarachnoid space, between the pia mater and the arachnoid mater. From the arachnoid granulations, CSF is reabsorbed into the blood, removing the waste from the privileged central nervous tissue.
The blood, now with the reabsorbed CSF, drains out of the cranium through the dural sinuses. The dura mater is the tough outer covering of the CNS, which is anchored to the inner surface of the cranial and vertebral cavities. It surrounds the venous space known as the dural sinuses, which connect to the jugular veins, where blood drains from the head and neck.
The PNS is composed of the groups of neurons (ganglia) and bundles of axons (nerves) that are outside of the brain and spinal cord. Ganglia are of two types, sensory or autonomic. Sensory ganglia contain unipolar sensory neurons and are found on the dorsal root of all spinal nerves as well as associated with many of the cranial nerves. Autonomic ganglia are in the sympathetic chain, the associated paravertebral or prevertebral ganglia, or in terminal ganglia near or within the organs controlled by the autonomic nervous system.
Nerves are classified as cranial nerves or spinal nerves on the basis of their connection to the brain or spinal cord, respectively. The twelve cranial nerves can be strictly sensory in function, strictly motor in function, or a combination of the two functions. Sensory fibers are axons of sensory ganglia that carry sensory information into the brain and target sensory nuclei. Motor fibers are axons of motor neurons in motor nuclei of the brain stem and target skeletal muscles of the head and neck. Spinal nerves are all mixed nerves with both sensory and motor fibers. Spinal nerves emerge from the spinal cord and reorganize through plexuses, which then give rise to systemic nerves. Thoracic spinal nerves are not part of any plexus, but give rise to the intercostal nerves directly.