The nervous system can be separated into divisions on the basis of anatomy and physiology. The anatomical divisions are the central and peripheral nervous systems. The CNS is the brain and spinal cord. The PNS is everything else. Functionally, the nervous system can be divided into those regions that are responsible for sensation, those that are responsible for integration, and those that are responsible for generating responses. All of these functional areas are found in both the central and peripheral anatomy.
Considering the anatomical regions of the nervous system, there are specific names for the structures within each division. A localized collection of neuron cell bodies is referred to as a nucleus in the CNS and as a ganglion in the PNS. A bundle of axons is referred to as a tract in the CNS and as a nerve in the PNS. Whereas nuclei and ganglia are specifically in the central or peripheral divisions, axons can cross the boundary between the two. A single axon can be part of a nerve and a tract. The name for that specific structure depends on its location.
Nervous tissue can also be described as gray matter and white matter on the basis of its appearance in unstained tissue. These descriptions are more often used in the CNS. Gray matter is where nuclei are found and white matter is where tracts are found. In the PNS, ganglia are basically gray matter and nerves are white matter.
The nervous system can also be divided on the basis of how it controls the body. The somatic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for functions that result in moving skeletal muscles. Any sensory or integrative functions that result in the movement of skeletal muscle would be considered somatic. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is responsible for functions that affect cardiac or smooth muscle tissue, or that cause glands to produce their secretions. Autonomic functions are distributed between central and peripheral regions of the nervous system. The sensations that lead to autonomic functions can be the same sensations that are part of initiating somatic responses. Somatic and autonomic integrative functions may overlap as well.
A special division of the nervous system is the enteric nervous system, which is responsible for controlling the digestive organs. Parts of the autonomic nervous system overlap with the enteric nervous system. The enteric nervous system is exclusively found in the periphery because it is the nervous tissue in the organs of the digestive system.
Nervous tissue contains two major cell types, neurons and glial cells. Neurons are the cells responsible for communication through electrical signals. Glial cells are supporting cells, maintaining the environment around the neurons.
Neurons are polarized cells, based on the flow of electrical signals along their membrane. Signals are received at the dendrites, are passed along the cell body, and propagate along the axon towards the target, which may be another neuron, muscle tissue, or a gland. Many axons are insulated by a lipid-rich substance called myelin. Specific types of glial cells provide this insulation.
Several types of glial cells are found in the nervous system, and they can be categorized by the anatomical division in which they are found. In the CNS, astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, microglia, and ependymal cells are found. Astrocytes are important for maintaining the chemical environment around the neuron and are crucial for regulating the blood-brain barrier. Oligodendrocytes are the myelinating glia in the CNS. Microglia act as phagocytes and play a role in immune surveillance. Ependymal cells are responsible for filtering the blood to produce cerebrospinal fluid, which is a circulatory fluid that performs some of the functions of blood in the brain and spinal cord because of the BBB. In the PNS, satellite cells are supporting cells for the neurons, and Schwann cells insulate peripheral axons.
Sensation starts with the activation of a sensory ending, such as the thermoreceptor in the skin sensing the temperature of the water. The sensory endings in the skin initiate an electrical signal that travels along the sensory axon within a nerve into the spinal cord, where it synapses with a neuron in the gray matter of the spinal cord. The temperature information represented in that electrical signal is passed to the next neuron by a chemical signal that diffuses across the small gap of the synapse and initiates a new electrical signal in the target cell. That signal travels through the sensory pathway to the brain, passing through the thalamus, where conscious perception of the water temperature is made possible by the cerebral cortex. Following integration of that information with other cognitive processes and sensory information, the brain sends a command back down to the spinal cord to initiate a motor response by controlling a skeletal muscle. The motor pathway is composed of two cells, the upper motor neuron and the lower motor neuron. The upper motor neuron has its cell body in the cerebral cortex and synapses on a cell in the gray matter of the spinal cord. The lower motor neuron is that cell in the gray matter of the spinal cord and its axon extends into the periphery where it synapses with a skeletal muscle in a neuromuscular junction.
The nervous system is characterized by electrical signals that are sent from one area to another. Whether those areas are close or very far apart, the signal must travel along an axon. The basis of the electrical signal is the controlled distribution of ions across the membrane. Transmembrane ion channels regulate when ions can move in or out of the cell, so that a precise signal is generated. This signal is the action potential which has a very characteristic shape based on voltage changes across the membrane in a given time period.
The membrane is normally at rest with established Na+ and K+ concentrations on either side. A stimulus will start the depolarization of the membrane, and voltage-gated channels will result in further depolarization followed by repolarization of the membrane. A slight overshoot of hyperpolarization marks the end of the action potential. While an action potential is in progress, another cannot be generated under the same conditions. While the voltage-gated Na+ channel is inactivated, absolutely no action potentials can be generated. Once that channel has returned to its resting state, a new action potential is possible, but it must be started by a relatively stronger stimulus to overcome the K+ leaving the cell.
The action potential travels down the axon as voltage-gated ion channels are opened by the spreading depolarization. In unmyelinated axons, this happens in a continuous fashion because there are voltage-gated channels throughout the membrane. In myelinated axons, propagation is described as saltatory because voltage-gated channels are only found at the nodes of Ranvier and the electrical events seem to “jump” from one node to the next. Saltatory conduction is faster than continuous conduction, meaning that myelinated axons propagate their signals faster. The diameter of the axon also makes a difference as ions diffusing within the cell have less resistance in a wider space.
The basis of the electrical signal within a neuron is the action potential that propagates down the axon. For a neuron to generate an action potential, it needs to receive input from another source, either another neuron or a sensory stimulus. That input will result in opening ion channels in the neuron, resulting in a graded potential based on the strength of the stimulus. Graded potentials can be depolarizing or hyperpolarizing and can summate to affect the probability of the neuron reaching threshold.
Graded potentials can be the result of sensory stimuli. If the sensory stimulus is received by the dendrites of a unipolar sensory neuron, such as the sensory neuron ending in the skin, the graded potential is called a generator potential because it can directly generate the action potential in the initial segment of the axon. If the sensory stimulus is received by a specialized sensory receptor cell, the graded potential is called a receptor potential. Graded potentials produced by interactions between neurons at synapses are called postsynaptic potentials (PSPs). A depolarizing graded potential at a synapse is called an excitatory PSP, and a hyperpolarizing graded potential at a synapse is called an inhibitory PSP.
Synapses are the contacts between neurons, which can either be chemical or electrical in nature. Chemical synapses are far more common. At a chemical synapse, neurotransmitter is released from the presynaptic element and diffuses across the synaptic cleft. The neurotransmitter binds to a receptor protein and causes a change in the postsynaptic membrane (the PSP). The neurotransmitter must be inactivated or removed from the synaptic cleft so that the stimulus is limited in time.
The particular characteristics of a synapse vary based on the neurotransmitter system produced by that neuron. The cholinergic system is found at the neuromuscular junction and in certain places within the nervous system. Amino acids, such as glutamate, glycine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) are used as neurotransmitters. Other neurotransmitters are the result of amino acids being enzymatically changed, as in the biogenic amines, or being covalently bonded together, as in the neuropeptides.