In vertebrates the system has two main divisions, the central and the peripheral nervous systems. The central nervous system consists of the brain and spinal cord. Linked to these are the cranial, spinal, and autonomic nerves, which, with their branches, constitute the peripheral nervous system. The brain might be compared to a computer and its memory banks, the spinal cord to the conducting cable for the computer's input and output, and the nerves to a circuit supplying input information to the cable and transmitting the output to muscles and organs.
The nervous system is built up of nerve cells, called neurons, which are supported and protected by other cells. Of the 200 billion or so neurons making up the human nervous system, approximately half are found in the brain. From the cell body of a typical neuron extend one or more outgrowths (dendrites), threadlike structures that divide and subdivide into ever smaller branches. Another, usually longer structure called the axon also stretches from the cell body. It sometimes branches along its length but always branches at its microscopic tip. When the cell body of a neuron is chemically stimulated, it generates an impulse that passes from the axon of one neuron to the dendrite of another; the junction between axon and dendrite is called a synapse. Such impulses carry information throughout the nervous system. Electrical impulses may pass directly from axon to axon, from axon to dendrite, or from dendrite to dendrite.
So-called white matter in the central nervous system consists primarily of axons coated with light-colored myelin produced by certain neuroglial cells. Nerve cell bodies that are not coated with white matter are known as gray matter. Nonmyelinated axons that are outside the central nervous system are enclosed only in a tubelike neurilemma sheath composed of Schwann cells, which are necessary for nerve regeneration. There are regular intervals along peripheral axons where the myelin sheath is interrupted. These areas, called nodes of Ranvier, are the points between which nerve impulses, in myelinated fibers, jump, rather than pass, continuously along the fiber (as is the case in unmyelinated fibers). Transmission of impulses is faster in myelinated nerves, varying from about 3 to 300 ft (1–91 m) per sec.
Both myelinated and unmyelinated dendrites and axons are termed nerve fibers; a nerve is a bundle of nerve fibers; a cluster of nerve cell bodies (neurons) on a peripheral nerve is called a ganglion. Neurons are located either in the brain, in the spinal cord, or in peripheral ganglia. Grouped and interconnected ganglia form a plexus, or nerve center. Sensory (afferent) nerve fibers deliver impulses from receptor terminals in the skin and organs to the central nervous system via the peripheral nervous system. Motor (efferent) fibers carry impulses from the central nervous system to effector terminals in muscles and glands via the peripheral system.
The peripheral system has 12 pairs of cranial nerves: olfactory, optic, oculomotor, trochlear, trigeminal, abducent, facial, vestibulo-cochlear (formerly known as acoustic), glossopharyngeal, vagus, spinal accessory, and hypoglossal. These have their origin in the brain and primarily control the activities of structures in the head and neck. The spinal nerves arise in the spinal cord, 31 pairs radiating to either side of the body: 8 cervical, 12 thoracic, 5 lumbar, 5 sacral, and 1 coccygeal.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.