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CSEC Physical Education Lecture Series

Published:Tuesday | December 16, 2014 | 12:00 AM

The Nervous System

Jennifer Ellison-Brown, Gleaner Writer

The nervous system enables us to control and coordinate all the body's activities. It enables performers to produce high-precision movements repeatedly, making them appear skillful, while other functions such as the beating of heart carry on automatically. The nervous system consists of the brain, the spinal cord, and the nerves which supply all parts of the body. It is responsible for all our conscious (or voluntary) actions and has two main parts.

1. The Central Nervous System (CNS):

This consists of the brain and the spinal cord. The brain is the centre of the entire system and is where all the incoming (sensory) information is processed and from where the outgoing (motor) information originates. The spinal cord goes down the inside of the spinal column from the brain. It carries all the nerve (sensory and motor) messages (impulses) between the body and the brain.

2. The Peripheral Nervous System:

This consists of the nerve fibres that branch out from the spinal cord and the various organs to which they are attached. Sensory nerves detect stimuli such as temperature, light, sound, and touch and send nervous impulses to the brain. Once the information has been processed, the nervous impulses are sent out down the motor nerves to the muscles and glands, which carry out the necessary action.

Structure of Nerve Cells

Nerve cells, or neurones, carry information to or from the spinal cord and the brain. They have three main sections.

Dendrites receive messages in the form of nerve impulses.

The nucleus is the main body of the cell.

The axon transmits the impulse away from the nucleus.

Neurones are not actually connected to each other but are separated by a microscopic gap called the synaptic gap. Impulses are able to cross this gap via the release of a chemical substance called acetylcholine, which allows an impulse to travel through the nervous system at great speed.

Types of NeuroneS

There are three types of neurons. Each has a different function, and this determines where the impulse is sent.

1. Sensory (afferent) neurons: These receive information from the sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin) and from receptors in the body and send impulses to the central nervous system.

2. Relay neurons: These are inside the brain or spinal cord and do the decision making after the impulse from the sensory neurons reaches the brain. If a decision for action is taken, the impulse is passed to the motor nerve.

3. Motor (efferent) neurons: These carry impulses from the CNS to muscles or organs. The cell body is inside the CNS and the axon leads out of it.

Involuntary Nervous System

This part of the nervous system is responsible for functions over which we have no control, for e.g., our heart beat and digestion. These actions are controlled by the medulla oblongata, an area that forms the top of the spinal cord. This is divided into two sections:

1. The Sympathetic Nervous System: This is responsible for preparing the body for action. It stimulates the adrenal gland and causes the heart rate and breathing rate to increase. It also slows down the functioning of organs not necessary for physical activity. This is known as the 'fight or flight'response.

2. The Parasympathetic Nervous System: This is responsible for slowing the body down and functions in opposition to the sympathetic nervous system.

Receptors and Reflex Actions

The brain also receives information from three main types of receptor organs:

1. Exteroceptors: outside the body (eyes, ears etc);

2. Interoceptors: inside the body (chemical changes in blood or lungs);

3. Proprioceptors: From within muscles, tendons, and joints. These are:

a. Golgi tendon organs: Detect the amount of stretch in a tendon;

b. Muscle spindles: Detect stretch in muscles;

c. Joint receptors: Tell the brain at what angle the joints are positioned.

The information picked up by these organs enables us to move our limbs quickly without the need to watch them.

There are times when we are required to act quickly, for instance, if we touch something hot. This is where our reflexes come into play. The impulse does not need to travel to the brain for interpretation. The impulse travels in a fast arc from sensory, to relay, to motor nerves. Moving the hand from the hot object is the withdrawal reflex, which is similar to sneezing or blinking as a response to a foreign object in the nose or eye. Another example is the knee-jerk reflex known as stretch reflex, wherein a bang on the knee results in the leg extending.

Next topic: The Excretory and Digestive Systems