The neurological exam is a clinical assessment tool to determine the extent of function from the nervous system. It is divided into five major sections that each deal with a specific region of the CNS. The mental status exam is concerned with the cerebrum and assesses higher functions such as memory, language, and emotion. The cranial nerve exam tests the functions of all of the cranial nerves and, therefore, their connections to the CNS through the forebrain and brain stem. The sensory and motor exams assess those functions as they relate to the spinal cord, as well as the combination of the functions in spinal reflexes. The coordination exam targets cerebellar function in coordinated movements, including those functions associated with gait.
Damage to and disease of the nervous system lead to loss of function. The location of the injury will correspond to the functional loss, as suggested by the principle of localization of function. The neurological exam provides the opportunity for a clinician to determine where damage has occurred on the basis of the function that is lost. Damage from acute injuries such as strokes may result in specific functions being lost, whereas broader effects in infection or developmental disorders may result in general losses across an entire section of the neurological exam.
The cerebrum, particularly the cerebral cortex, is the location of important cognitive functions that are the focus of the mental status exam. The regionalization of the cortex, initially described on the basis of anatomical evidence of cytoarchitecture, reveals the distribution of functionally distinct areas. Cortical regions can be described as primary sensory or motor areas, association areas, or multimodal integration areas. The functions attributed to these regions include attention, memory, language, speech, sensation, judgment, and abstract reasoning.
The mental status exam addresses these cognitive abilities through a series of subtests designed to elicit particular behaviors ascribed to these functions. The loss of neurological function can illustrate the location of damage to the cerebrum. Memory functions are attributed to the temporal lobe, particularly the medial temporal lobe structures known as the hippocampus and amygdala, along with the adjacent cortex. Evidence of the importance of these structures comes from the side effects of a bilateral temporal lobectomy that were studied in detail in patient HM.
Losses of language and speech functions, known as aphasias, are associated with damage to the important integration areas in the left hemisphere known as Broca’s or Wernicke’s areas, as well as the connections in the white matter between them. Different types of aphasia are named for the particular structures that are damaged. Assessment of the functions of the sensorium includes praxis and gnosis. The subtests related to these functions depend on multimodal integration, as well as language-dependent processing.
The prefrontal cortex contains structures important for planning, judgment, reasoning, and working memory. Damage to these areas can result in changes to personality, mood, and behavior. The famous case of Phineas Gage suggests a role for this cortex in personality, as does the outdated practice of prefrontal lobectomy.
The cranial nerves can be separated into four major groups associated with the subtests of the cranial nerve exam. First are the sensory nerves, then the nerves that control eye movement, the nerves of the oral cavity and superior pharynx, and the nerve that controls movements of the neck.
The olfactory, optic, and vestibulocochlear nerves are strictly sensory nerves for smell, sight, and balance and hearing, whereas the trigeminal, facial, and glossopharyngeal nerves carry somatosensation of the face, and taste—separated between the anterior two-thirds of the tongue and the posterior one-third. Special senses are tested by presenting the particular stimuli to each receptive organ. General senses can be tested through sensory discrimination of touch versus painful stimuli.
The oculomotor, trochlear, and abducens nerves control the extraocular muscles and are connected by the medial longitudinal fasciculus to coordinate gaze. Testing conjugate gaze is as simple as having the patient follow a visual target, like a pen tip, through the visual field ending with an approach toward the face to test convergence and accommodation. Along with the vestibular functions of the eighth nerve, the vestibulo-ocular reflex stabilizes gaze during head movements by coordinating equilibrium sensations with the eye movement systems.
The trigeminal nerve controls the muscles of chewing, which are tested for stretch reflexes. Motor functions of the facial nerve are usually obvious if facial expressions are compromised, but can be tested by having the patient raise their eyebrows, smile, and frown. Movements of the tongue, soft palate, or superior pharynx can be observed directly while the patient swallows, while the gag reflex is elicited, or while the patient says repetitive consonant sounds. The motor control of the gag reflex is largely controlled by fibers in the vagus nerve and constitutes a test of that nerve because the parasympathetic functions of that nerve are involved in visceral regulation, such as regulating the heartbeat and digestion.
Movement of the head and neck using the sternocleidomastoid and trapezius muscles is controlled by the accessory nerve. Flexing of the neck and strength testing of those muscles reviews the function of that nerve.
The sensory and motor exams assess function related to the spinal cord and the nerves connected to it. Sensory functions are associated with the dorsal regions of the spinal cord, whereas motor function is associated with the ventral side. Localizing damage to the spinal cord is related to assessments of the peripheral projections mapped to dermatomes.
Sensory tests address the various submodalities of the somatic senses: touch, temperature, vibration, pain, and proprioception. Results of the subtests can point to trauma in the spinal cord gray matter, white matter, or even in connections to the cerebral cortex.
Motor tests focus on the function of the muscles and the connections of the descending motor pathway. Muscle tone and strength are tested for upper and lower extremities. Input to the muscles comes from the descending cortical input of upper motor neurons and the direct innervation of lower motor neurons.
Reflexes can either be based on deep stimulation of tendons or superficial stimulation of the skin. The presence of reflexive contractions helps to differentiate motor disorders between the upper and lower motor neurons. The specific signs associated with motor disorders can establish the difference further, based on the type of paralysis, the state of muscle tone, and specific indicators such as pronator drift or the Babinski sign.
The cerebellum is an important part of motor function in the nervous system. It apparently plays a role in procedural learning, which would include motor skills such as riding a bike or throwing a football. The basis for these roles is likely to be tied into the role the cerebellum plays as a comparator for voluntary movement.
The motor commands from the cerebral hemispheres travel along the corticospinal pathway, which passes through the pons. Collateral branches of these fibers synapse on neurons in the pons, which then project into the cerebellar cortex through the middle cerebellar peduncles. Ascending sensory feedback, entering through the inferior cerebellar peduncles, provides information about motor performance. The cerebellar cortex compares the command to the actual performance and can adjust the descending input to compensate for any mismatch. The output from deep cerebellar nuclei projects through the superior cerebellar peduncles to initiate descending signals from the red nucleus to the spinal cord.
The primary role of the cerebellum in relation to the spinal cord is through the spinocerebellum; it controls posture and gait with significant input from the vestibular system. Deficits in cerebellar function result in ataxias, or a specific kind of movement disorder. The root cause of the ataxia may be the sensory input—either the proprioceptive input from the spinal cord or the equilibrium input from the vestibular system, or direct damage to the cerebellum by stroke, trauma, hereditary factors, or toxins.