The Pattern of the Vertebrate Nervous System

Although the various vertebrates show differences in the organization of their respective nervous systems, they all follow a similar anatomical pattern. The nervous system can be partitioned conveniently into two major divisions: the peripheral nervous system (PNS) and the central nervous system (CNS). These divisions are determined by their location and function. The CNS consists of the spinal cord and the brain. The PNS, that part of the nervous system outside the CNS, connects the CNS with the various sense organs, glands, and muscles of the body.

The PNS joins the CNS in the form of nerves, which are cordlike bundles of hundreds to thousands of individual, parallel nerve-cell (neuron) axons (long tubular extensions of the neurons) extending from the brain and spinal cord. The nerves extending from the spine are called spinal nerves, while those from the brain are called cranial nerves. The elements of the PNS include sensory neurons (for example, those in the eyes and in the tongue) and motor neurons (which activate muscles and glands, thereby causing some sort of action or change to occur). Most nerves contain both sensory and motor axons.

Thus, the PNS can be divided into two major subdivisions: sensory (or afferent) neurons and motor (or efferent) neurons. There is very little information-processing accomplished in the PNS. Instead, it relays both environmental information to the CNS (sensory function) and the CNS responses to the body's muscles and glands (motor function). Sensory neurons of the PNS are classified as somatic afferents if they carry signals from the skin, skeletal muscles, or joints of the body. Sensory neurons from the visceral organs (internal organs of the body) are called visceral afferents.

The PNS motor subdivision also has two parts. One is the somatic efferent nervous system, which carries neuron impulses from the CNS to skeletal muscles. The other is the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which carries signals from the CNS to regulate the body's internal environment by controlling the smooth muscles, the glands, and the heart. The ANS itself is subdivided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. These are generally both connected to any given target and cause approximately opposite effects to each other on that target (for example, slowing or increasing the heart rate).

The CNS, where essentially all information-processing occurs, has two major subdivisions: the spinal cord and the brain. Virtually all vertebrates have similarly organized spinal cords, with two distinct regions of nervous tissue: gray and white matter. Gray matter is centrally located and consists of neuron cell bodies and unmyelinated axons (bare axons without the glistening sheaths called myelin, created by supporting cells wrapping around the axons). White matter contains mostly bundles of myelinated axons (white because they have glistening myelin sheaths around them). Bundles of axons in the CNS are called nerve tracts. Within the spinal cord, these are either sensory tracts carrying impulses toward the brain, or they are motor tracts transmitting information in the opposite direction.

Interneurons are neurons positioned between two or more other neurons. They accept and integrate signals from some of the cells and then influ ence the others in turn. Interneurons are particularly numerous within the gray matter. In the spinal cord, they permit communication up, down, and laterally. Most axons in the cord's tracts belong to interneurons.

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