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8.1 – Neuronal organization

Learning Outcomes

8.1. Describe the general organization of the neurons within and outside of the central nervous system.

Central nervous system

The central nervous system (CNS) is made up of the brain, a part of which is shown in Figure 8.1 and spinal cord and is covered with three layers of protective coverings called meninges (from the Greek word for membrane). The outermost layer is the dura mater (Latin for “hard mother”). As the Latin suggests, the primary function of this thick layer is to protect the brain and spinal cord. The dura mater also contains vein-like structures that carry blood from the brain back to the heart. The middle layer is the web-like arachnoid mater. The last layer is the pia mater (Latin for “soft mother”), which directly contacts and covers the brain and spinal cord like plastic wrap. The space between the arachnoid and pia maters is filled with cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). CSF is produced by a tissue called choroid plexus in fluid-filled compartments in the CNS called ventricles. The brain floats in CSF, which acts as a cushion and shock absorber and makes the brain neutrally buoyant. CSF also functions to circulate chemical substances throughout the brain and into the spinal cord.

The entire brain contains only about 8.5 tablespoons of CSF, but CSF is constantly produced in the ventricles. This creates a problem when a ventricle is blocked—the CSF builds up and creates swelling and the brain is pushed against the skull. This swelling condition is called hydrocephalus (“water head”) and can cause seizures, cognitive problems, and even death if a shunt is not inserted to remove the fluid and pressure.

Cerebral cortex layers

Figure 8.1.  The cerebral cortex is covered by three layers of meninges: the dura, arachnoid, and pia maters. (credit: modification of work by Gray’s Anatomy)

Autonomic nervous system

The autonomic nervous system serves as the relay between the CNS and the internal organs. It controls the lungs, the heart, smooth muscle, and exocrine and endocrine glands. The autonomic nervous system controls these organs largely without conscious control; it can continuously monitor the conditions of these different systems and implement changes as needed. Signaling to the target tissue usually involves two synapses: a preganglionic neuron (originating in the CNS) synapses to a neuron in a ganglion that, in turn, synapses on the target organ, as illustrated in Figure 8.2. There are two divisions of the autonomic nervous system that often have opposing effects: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.

Organization of the parasympathetic and sympathetic autonomic nervous system.

Figure 8.2. Autonomic nervous system.

Quiz Question 8.1

Which of the following statements is false?
The parasympathetic pathway is responsible for resting the body, while the sympathetic pathway is responsible for preparing for an emergency.
b. Most preganglionic neurons in the sympathetic pathway originate in the spinal cord.
c. Slowing of the heartbeat is a parasympathetic response.
d. Parasympathetic neurons are responsible for releasing norepinephrine on the target organ, while sympathetic neurons are responsible for releasing acetylcholine.

Sympathetic nervous system

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the “fight or flight” response that occurs when an animal encounters a dangerous situation. One way to remember this is to think of the surprise a person feels when encountering a snake (“snake” and “sympathetic” both begin with “s”). Examples of functions controlled by the sympathetic nervous system include an accelerated heart rate and inhibited digestion. These functions help prepare an organism’s body for the physical strain required to escape a potentially dangerous situation or to fend off a predator.

Most preganglionic neurons in the sympathetic nervous system originate in the spinal cord, as illustrated in Figure 8.3. The axons of these neurons release acetylcholine on postganglionic neurons within the sympathetic ganglia (the sympathetic ganglia form a chain that extends alongside the spinal cord). The acetylcholine activates the postganglionic neurons. Postganglionic neurons then release norepinephrine onto target organs. As anyone who has ever felt a rush before a big test, speech, or athletic event can attest, the effects of the sympathetic nervous system are quite pervasive. This is both because one preganglionic neuron synapses on multiple postganglionic neurons, amplifying the effect of the original synapse, and because the adrenal gland also releases norepinephrine (and the closely related hormone epinephrine) into the bloodstream. The physiological effects of this norepinephrine release include dilating the trachea and bronchi (making it easier for the animal to breathe), increasing heart rate, and moving blood from the skin to the heart, muscles, and brain (so the animal can think and run). The strength and speed of the sympathetic response help an organism avoid danger, and scientists have found evidence that it may also increase LTP—allowing the animal to remember the dangerous situation and avoid it in the future.

Sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system in humans.

Figure 8.3. Sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system in humans.

Parasympathetic nervous system

While the sympathetic nervous system is activated in stressful situations, the parasympathetic nervous system allows an animal to “rest and digest.” One way to remember this is to think that during a restful situation like a picnic, the parasympathetic nervous system is in control (“picnic” and “parasympathetic” both start with “p”). Parasympathetic preganglionic neurons have cell bodies located in the brainstem and in the sacral (toward the bottom) spinal cord, as shown in Figure 8.3. The axons of the preganglionic neurons release acetylcholine on the postganglionic neurons, which are generally located very near the target organs. Most postganglionic neurons release acetylcholine onto target organs, although some release nitric oxide.

The parasympathetic nervous system resets organ function after the sympathetic nervous system is activated (the common adrenaline dump you feel after a ‘fight-or-flight’ event). Effects of acetylcholine release on target organs include slowing of heart rate, lowered blood pressure, and stimulation of digestion.

Sensory-somatic nervous system

The sensory-somatic nervous system is made up of cranial and spinal nerves and contains both sensory and motor neurons. Sensory neurons transmit sensory information from the skin, skeletal muscle, and sensory organs to the CNS. Motor neurons transmit messages about the desired movement from the CNS to the muscles to make them contract. Without its sensory-somatic nervous system, an animal would be unable to process any information about its environment (what it sees, feels, hears, and so on) and could not control motor movements. Unlike the autonomic nervous system, which has two synapses between the CNS and the target organ, sensory and motor neurons have only one synapse—one ending of the neuron is at the organ and the other directly contacts a CNS neuron. Acetylcholine is the main neurotransmitter released at these synapses.

Humans have 12 cranial nerves, nerves that emerge from or enter the skull (cranium), as opposed to the spinal nerves, which emerge from the vertebral column. Each cranial nerve is accorded a name, which is detailed in Figure 8.4. Some cranial nerves transmit only sensory information. For example, the olfactory nerve transmits information about smells from the nose to the brainstem. Other cranial nerves transmit almost solely motor information. For example, the oculomotor nerve controls the opening and closing of the eyelid and some eye movements. Other cranial nerves contain a mix of sensory and motor fibers. For example, the glossopharyngeal nerve has a role in both taste (sensory) and swallowing (motor).

Spinal nerves transmit sensory and motor information between the spinal cord and the rest of the body. Each of the 31 spinal nerves (in humans) contains both sensory and motor axons. The sensory neuron cell bodies are grouped in structures called dorsal root ganglia and are shown in Figure 8.5. Each sensory neuron has one projection—with a sensory receptor ending in the skin, muscle, or sensory organs—and another that synapses with a neuron in the dorsal spinal cord. Motor neurons have cell bodies in the ventral gray matter of the spinal cord that project to muscle through the ventral root. These neurons are usually stimulated by interneurons within the spinal cord but are sometimes directly stimulated by sensory neurons.

Cranial nerves

Figure 8.4. Cranial nerves in humans.

Spinal cord

Figure 8.5. Spinal cord structures.

The peripheral nervous system contains both the autonomic and sensory-somatic nervous systems. The autonomic nervous system provides unconscious control over visceral functions and has two divisions: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is activated in stressful situations to prepare the animal for a “fight or flight” response. The parasympathetic nervous system is active during restful periods. The sensory-somatic nervous system is made of cranial and spinal nerves that transmit sensory information from skin and muscle to the CNS and motor commands from the CNS to the muscles.

Questions Question 8.2

When you use a word nerve what does it refer to? What about neuron? How are these terms different and how are they the same in terms of their function.


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8.1 - Neuronal organization by Sanja Hinic-Frlog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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