- Apply the rules of medical language to build, analyze, spell, pronounce, abbreviate, and define terms as they relate to the nervous system
- Identify meanings of key word components of the nervous system
- Categorize diagnostic, therapeutic, procedural or anatomic terms related to the nervous system
- Use terms related to the nervous system
- Use terms related to the diseases and disorders of the nervous system
Nervous System Word Parts
Click on prefixes, combining forms, and suffixes to reveal a list of word parts to memorize for the Nervous System.
Introduction to the Nervous System
The picture you have in your mind of the nervous system probably includes the brain, the nervous tissue contained within the cranium, and the spinal cord, the extension of nervous tissue within the vertebral column. That suggests it is made of two organs—and you may not even think of the spinal cord as an organ—but the nervous system is a very complex structure. Within the brain, many different and separate regions are responsible for many different and separate functions. It is as if the nervous system is composed of many organs that all look similar and can only be differentiated using tools such as the or .
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Nervous System Medical Terms
Anatomy (Structures) of the Nervous System
The Central and Peripheral Nervous Systems
Nervous tissue, present in both the CNS and PNS, contains two basic types of cells: neurons and glial cells. Neurons are the primary type of cell that most anyone associates with the nervous system. They are responsible for the computation and communication that the nervous system provides. They are electrically active and release chemical signals to target cells. Glial cells, or glia, are known to
play a supporting role for nervous tissue. Ongoing research pursues an expanded role that glial cells might play in signaling, but neurons are still considered the basis of this function. Neurons are important, but without glial support they would not be able to perform their function. A glial cell is one of a variety of cells that provide a framework of tissue that supports the neurons and their activities. The neuron is the more functionally important of the two, in terms of the communicative function of the nervous system. To describe the functional divisions of the nervous system, it is important to understand the structure of a neuron.
Neurons are cells and therefore have a soma, or cell body, but they also have extensions of the cell; each extension is generally referred to as a process. There is one important process that every neuron has called an axon, which is the fiber that connects a neuron with its target. Another type of process that branches off from the soma is the dendrite. Dendrites are responsible for receiving most of the input from other neurons.
Looking at nervous tissue, there are regions that predominantly contain cell bodies and regions that are largely composed of just axons. These two regions within nervous system structures are often referred to as gray matter (the regions with many cell bodies and dendrites) or white matter (the regions with many axons). Figure 16.2 demonstrates the appearance of these regions in the brain and spinal cord. The colors ascribed to these regions are what would be seen in “fresh,” or unstained, nervous tissue. Gray matter is not necessarily gray. It can be pinkish because of blood content, or even slightly tan, depending on how long the tissue has been preserved. White matter is white because axons are insulated by a lipid-rich substance called myelin. Lipids can appear as white (“fatty”) material, much like the fat on a raw piece of chicken or beef. Actually, gray matter may have that color ascribed to it because next to the white matter, it is just darker—hence, gray.
The distinction between gray matter and white matter is most often applied to central nervous tissue, which has large regions that can be seen with the unaided eye. When looking at peripheral structures, often a microscope is used and the tissue is stained with artificial colors. That is not to say that central nervous tissue cannot be stained and viewed under a microscope, but unstained tissue is most likely from the CNS—for example, a frontal section of the brain or cross section of the spinal cord.
The Adult Brain
The iconic gray mantle of the human brain, which appears to make up most of the mass of the brain, is the (see Figure 16.3). The wrinkled portion is the cerebral cortex, and the rest of the structure is beneath that outer covering. There is a large separation between the two sides of the cerebrum called the longitudinal fissure. It separates the cerebrum into two distinct halves, a right and left cerebral hemisphere. Deep within the cerebrum, the white matter of the corpus callosum provides the major pathway for communication between the two hemispheres of the cerebral cortex.
Many of the higher neurological functions, such as memory, emotion, and consciousness, are the result of cerebral function. The complexity of the cerebrum is different across vertebrate species. The cerebrum of the most primitive vertebrates is not much more than the connection for the sense of smell. In mammals, the cerebrum comprises the outer gray matter that is the cortex (from the Latin word meaning “bark of a tree”) and several deep nuclei that belong to three important functional groups. The basal nuclei are responsible for cognitive processing, the most important function being that associated with planning movements. The basal forebrain contains nuclei that are important in learning and memory. The limbic cortex is the region of the cerebral cortex that part of the limbic system, a collection of structures involved in emotion, memory, and behavior.
The cerebrum is covered by a continuous layer of gray matter that wraps around either side of the forebrain—the cerebral cortex. This thin, extensive region of wrinkled gray matter is responsible for the higher functions of the nervous system. A gyrus (plural = gyri) is the ridge of one of those wrinkles, and a sulcus (plural = sulci) is the groove between two gyri. The pattern of these folds of tissue indicates specific regions of the cerebral cortex.
The head is limited by the size of the birth canal, and the brain must fit inside the cranial cavity of the skull. Extensive folding in the cerebral cortex enables more gray matter to fit into this limited space. If the gray matter of the cortex were peeled off of the cerebrum and laid out flat, its surface area would be roughly equal to one square meter.
The folding of the cortex maximizes the amount of gray matter in the cranial cavity. During embryonic development, as the telencephalon expands within the skull, the brain goes through a regular course of growth that results in everyone’s brain having a similar pattern of folds. The surface of the brain can be mapped on the basis of the locations of large gyri and sulci. Using these landmarks, the cortex can be separated into four major regions, or lobes (see Figure 16.4). The lateral sulcus that separates the temporal lobe from the other regions is one such landmark. Superior to the lateral sulcus are the parietal lobe and frontal lobe, which are separated from each other by the central sulcus. The posterior region of the cortex is the occipital lobe, which has no obvious anatomical border between it and the parietal or temporal lobes on the lateral surface of the brain. From the medial surface, an obvious landmark separating the parietal and occipital lobes is called the parieto-occipital sulcus. The fact that there is no obvious anatomical border between these lobes is consistent with the functions of these regions being interrelated.
The midbrain and hindbrain (composed of the pons and the medulla) are collectively referred to as the brain stem (see Figure 16.5). The structure emerges from the ventral surface of the forebrain as a tapering cone that connects the brain to the spinal cord. Attached to the brain stem, but considered a separate region of the adult brain, is the cerebellum. The midbrain coordinates sensory representations of the visual, auditory, and somatosensory perceptual spaces. The pons is the main connection with the cerebellum. The pons and the medulla regulate several crucial functions, including the cardiovascular and respiratory systems and rates.
The cranial nerves connect through the brain stem and provide the brain with the sensory input and motor output associated with the head and neck, including most of the special senses. The major ascending and descending pathways between the spinal cord and brain, specifically the cerebrum, pass through the brain stem.
The midbrain is the uppermost portion of the brainstem. It contains pathways connecting the cerebrum with lower portions of the brain and structures involved with seeing and hearing.
The pons is a part of the brainstem that literally means bridge. It contains nerve fiber tracts that connect the cerebellum and cerebrum with the rest of the brain. Nerves affecting the face and eye movement are located here.
The medulla oblongata, also in the brainstem, connects the spinal cord with the rest of the brain. It is the region known as the myelencephalon in the embryonic brain. It contains centers that control respiration, heart rate, and the muscles of the blood vessel walls, which assist in determining blood pressure. Nerve tracts cross from right to left and left to right in the medulla oblongata. For example, nerve cells that control movement of the left side of the body are found in the right half of the cerebrum. These cells send out axons that cross over (decussate) to the opposite side of the brain in the medulla oblongata and then travel down the spinal cord.
The cerebellum functions to coordinate voluntary movements and to maintain balance and posture. It is covered in gyri and sulci like the cerebrum, and looks like a miniature version of that part of the brain (see Figure 16.6). The cerebellum is located under the posterior portion of the cerebrum (also called hindbrain). It accounts for approximately 10 percent of the mass of the brain.
- What is the primary processing purpose of the medulla?
- Identify the structure in the brain responsible for sensory feedback through the spinal cord. Suggest what may happen if this function failed.
The Spinal Cord
The description of the CNS is concentrated on the structures of the brain, but the spinal cord is another major organ of the system. Whereas the brain develops out of expansions of the neural tube into primary and then secondary vesicles, the spinal cord maintains the tube structure and is only specialized into certain regions. As the spinal cord continues to develop in the newborn, anatomical
features mark its surface. The anterior midline is marked by the anterior median fissure, and the posterior midline is marked by the posterior median sulcus. Axons enter the posterior side through the dorsal (posterior) nerve root, which marks the posterolateral sulcus on either side. The axons emerging from the anterior side do so through the ventral (anterior) nerve root. Note that it is common to see the terms dorsal (dorsal = “back”) and ventral (ventral = “belly”) used interchangeably with posterior and anterior, particularly in reference to nerves and the structures of the spinal cord. You should learn to be comfortable with both.
On the whole, the posterior regions are responsible for sensory functions and the anterior regions are associated with motor functions. This comes from the initial development of the spinal cord, which is divided into the basal plate and the alar plate. The basal plate is closest to the ventral midline of the neural tube, which will become the anterior face of the spinal cord and gives rise to motor neurons. The alar plate is on the dorsal side of the neural tube and gives rise to neurons that will receive sensory input from the periphery.
The length of the spinal cord is divided into regions that correspond to the regions of the vertebral column. The name of a spinal cord region corresponds to the level at which spinal nerves pass through the intervertebral foramina. Immediately adjacent to the brain stem is the following divisions of the spinal cord:
- cervical region
- thoracic region
- lumbar region
- sacral region
The spinal cord is not the full length of the vertebral column because the spinal cord does not grow significantly longer after the first or second year, but the skeleton continues to grow. The nerves that emerge from the spinal cord pass through the intervertebral formina at the respective levels. As the vertebral column grows, these nerves grow with it and result in a long bundle of nerves that resembles a horse’s tail and is named the cauda equina. The sacral spinal cord is at the level of the upper lumbar vertebral bones. The spinal nerves extend from their various levels to the proper level of the vertebral column.
Neurons are the cells considered to be the basis of nervous tissue. They are responsible for the electrical signals that communicate information about sensations, and that produce movements in response to those stimuli, along with inducing thought processes within the brain. An important part of the function of neurons is in their structure, or shape. The three-dimensional shape of these cells makes the immense numbers of connections within the nervous system possible.
Parts of a Neuron
As you learned in the first section, the main part of a neuron is the cell body, which is also known as the soma (soma = “body”). The cell body contains the nucleus and most of the major organelles. But what makes neurons special is that they have many extensions of their cell membranes, which are generally referred to as processes. Neurons are usually described as having one, and only one, axon—a fiber that emerges from the cell body and projects to target cells. That single axon can branch repeatedly to communicate with many target cells. It is the axon that propagates the nerve impulse, which is communicated to one or more cells. The other processes of the neuron are dendrites, which receive information from other neurons at specialized areas of contact called synapses. The dendrites are usually highly branched processes, providing locations for other neurons to communicate with the cell body. Information flows through a neuron from the dendrites, across the cell body, and down the axon. This gives the neuron a polarity—meaning that information flows in this one direction. Figure 16.7 shows the relationship of these parts to one another.
Many axons are wrapped by an insulating substance called myelin, which is actually made from glial cells. Myelin acts as insulation much like the plastic or rubber that is used to insulate electrical wires. A key difference between myelin and the insulation on a wire is that there are gaps in the myelin covering of an axon. Each gap is called a node of Ranvier and is important to the way that electrical signals travel down the axon. The length of the axon between each gap, which is wrapped in myelin, is referred to as an axon segment. At the end of the axon is the axon terminal, where there are usually several branches extending toward the target cell, each of which ends in an enlargement called a synaptic end bulb. These bulbs are what make the connection with the target cell at the synapse.
Types of Neurons
There are many neurons in the nervous system—a number in the trillions. And there are many different types of neurons. They can be classified by many different criteria. The first way to classify them is by the number of processes attached to the cell body. Using the standard model of neurons, one of these processes is the axon, and the rest are dendrites. Because information flows through the neuron from dendrites or cell bodies toward the axon, these names are based on the neuron’s polarity.
Glial cells, or neuroglia or simply glia, are the other type of cell found in nervous tissue. They are considered to be supporting cells, and many functions are directed at helping neurons complete their function for communication. The name glia comes from the Greek word that means “glue,” and was coined by the German pathologist Rudolph Virchow, who wrote in 1856: “This connective substance, which is in the brain, the spinal cord, and the special sense nerves, is a kind of glue (neuroglia) in which the nervous elements are planted.” Today, research into nervous tissue has shown that there are many deeper roles that these cells play. And research may find much more about them in the future.
There are six types of glial cells. Four of them are found in the CNS and two are found in the PNS. Table 16.1 outlines some common characteristics and functions.
|CNS GLIA||PNS GLIA||BASIC FUNCTION|
|Oligodendrocyte||Schwann cell||Insulation, myelination|
|Microglia||–||Immune surveillance and phagocytosis|
|Ependymal cell||–||Creating CSF|
Glial Cells of the CNS
One cell providing support to neurons of the CNS is the astrocyte, so named because it appears to be star-shaped under the microscope (astro- = “star”). Astrocytes have many processes extending from their main cell body (not axons or dendrites like neurons, just cell extensions). Those processes extend to interact with neurons, blood vessels, or the connective tissue covering the CNS that is called the pia mater (see Figure 16.8). Generally, they are supporting cells for the neurons in the central nervous system. Some ways in which they support neurons in the central nervous system are by maintaining the concentration of chemicals in the extracellular space, removing excess signaling molecules, reacting to tissue damage, and contributing to the blood-brain barrier (BBB). The blood-brain barrier is a physiological barrier that keeps many substances that circulate in the rest of the body from getting into the central nervous system, restricting what can cross from circulating blood into the CNS. Nutrient molecules, such as glucose or amino acids, can pass through the BBB, but other molecules cannot. This actually causes problems with drug delivery to the CNS. Pharmaceutical companies are challenged to design drugs that can cross the BBB as well as have an effect on the nervous system.
Like a few other parts of the body, the brain has a privileged blood supply. Very little can pass through by diffusion. Most substances that cross the wall of a blood vessel into the CNS must do so through an active transport process. Because of this, only specific types of molecules can enter the CNS. Glucose—the primary energy source—is allowed, as are amino acids. Water and some other small particles, like gases and ions, can enter. But most everything else cannot, including white blood cells, which are one of the body’s main lines of defense. While this barrier protects the CNS from exposure to toxic or pathogenic substances, it also keeps out the cells that could protect the brain and spinal cord from disease and damage. The BBB also makes it harder for pharmaceuticals to be developed that can affect the nervous system. Aside from finding efficacious substances, the means of delivery is also crucial.
Oligodendrocyte, sometimes called just “oligo,” which is the glial cell type that insulates axons in the CNS. The name means “cell of a few branches” (oligo- = “few”; dendro- = “branches”; -cyte = “cell”).
Microglia are smaller than most of the other glial cells. Ongoing research into these cells, although not entirely conclusive, suggests that they may originate as white blood cells, called macrophages, that become part of the CNS during early development. Their function is related to what macrophages do in the rest of the body. When macrophages encounter diseased or damaged cells in the rest of the body, they ingest and digest those cells or the pathogens that cause disease. Microglia are the cells in the CNS that can do this in normal, healthy tissue, and they are therefore also referred to as CNS-resident macrophages.
The ependymal cell is a glial cell that filters blood to make cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), the fluid that circulates through the CNS. Because of the privileged blood supply inherent in the BBB, the extracellular space in nervous tissue does not easily exchange components with the blood. Ependymal cells line each ventricle, one of four central cavities that are remnants of the hollow center of the neural tube formed during the embryonic development of the brain. They also have cilia on their apical surface to help move the CSF through the ventricular space. The relationship of these glial cells to the structure of the CNS is seen in Figure 16.8.
Glial Cells of the PNS
One of the two types of glial cells found in the PNS is the satellite cell. Satellite cells are found in sensory and autonomic ganglia, where they surround the cell bodies of neurons. This accounts for the name, based on their appearance under the microscope. They provide support, performing similar functions in the periphery as astrocytes do in the CNS—except, of course, for establishing the BBB.
The second type of glial cell is the Schwann cell, which insulate axons with myelin in the periphery. Schwann cells are different than oligodendrocytes, in that a Schwann cell wraps around a portion of only one axon segment and no others. Oligodendrocytes have processes that reach out to multiple axon segments, whereas the entire Schwann cell surrounds just one axon segment. The nucleus and cytoplasm of the Schwann cell are on the edge of the myelin sheath. The relationship of these two types of glial cells to ganglia and nerves in the PNS is seen in Figure 16.9.
The appearance of the myelin sheath can be thought of as similar to the pastry wrapped around a hot dog for “pigs in a blanket” or a similar food. The glial cell is wrapped around the axon several times with little to no cytoplasm between the glial cell layers. For oligodendrocytes, the rest of the cell is separate from the myelin sheath as a cell process extends back toward the cell body. A few other processes provide the same insulation for other axon segments in the area. For Schwann cells, the outermost layer of the cell membrane contains cytoplasm and the nucleus of the cell as a bulge on one side of the myelin sheath. During development, the glial cell is loosely or incompletely wrapped around the axon. The edges of this loose enclosure extend toward each other, and one end tucks under the other. The inner edge wraps around the axon, creating several layers, and the other edge closes around the outside so that the axon is completely enclosed.
Anatomy Labeling Activity
Physiology (Function) of the Nervous System
The nervous system is involved in receiving information about the environment around us (sensation) and generating responses to that information (motor responses). The nervous system can be divided into regions that are responsible for sensation (sensory functions) and for the response (motor functions). But there is a third function that needs to be included. Sensory input needs to be integrated with other sensations, as well as with memories, emotional state, or learning (cognition). Some regions of the nervous system are termed integration or association areas. The process of integration combines sensory perceptions and higher cognitive functions such as memories, learning, and emotion to produce a response.
The first major function of the nervous system is sensation—receiving information about the environment to gain input about what is happening outside the body (or, sometimes, within the body). The sensory functions of the nervous system register the presence of a change from homeostasis or a particular event in the environment, known as a stimulus. The senses we think of most are the “big five”: taste, smell, touch, sight, and hearing. The stimuli for taste and smell are both chemical substances (molecules, compounds, ions, etc.), touch is physical or mechanical stimuli that interact with the skin, sight is light stimuli, and hearing is the perception of sound, which is a physical stimulus similar to some aspects of touch. There are actually more senses than just those, but that list represents the major senses. Those five are all senses that receive stimuli from the outside world, and of which there is conscious perception. Additional sensory stimuli might be from the internal environment (inside the body), such as the stretch of an organ wall or the concentration of certain ions in the blood.
The nervous system produces a response on the basis of the stimuli perceived by sensory structures. An obvious response would be the movement of muscles, such as withdrawing a hand from a hot stove, but there are broader uses of the term. The nervous system can cause the contraction of all three types of muscle tissue. For example, skeletal muscle contracts to move the skeleton, cardiac muscle is influenced as heart rate increases during exercise, and smooth muscle contracts as the digestive system moves food along the digestive tract. Responses also include the neural control of glands in the body as well, such as the production and secretion of sweat by the sweat glands found in the skin to lower body temperature.
Responses can be divided into those that are voluntary or conscious (contraction of skeletal muscle) and those that are involuntary (contraction of smooth muscles, regulation of cardiac muscle, activation of glands). Voluntary responses are governed by the somatic nervous system and involuntary responses are governed by the autonomic nervous system, which are discussed in the next section.
Stimuli that are received by sensory structures are communicated to the nervous system where that information is processed. This is called integration. Stimuli are compared with, or integrated with, other stimuli, memories of previous stimuli, or the state of a person at a particular time. This leads to the specific response that will be generated. Seeing a baseball pitched to a batter will not automatically cause the batter to swing. The trajectory of the ball and its speed will need to be considered. Maybe the count is three balls and one strike, and the batter wants to let this pitch go by in the hope of getting a walk to first base. Or maybe the batter’s team is so far ahead, it would be fun to just swing away.
Controlling the Body
The nervous system can be divided into two parts mostly on the basis of a functional difference in responses. The somatic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for conscious perception and voluntary motor responses. Voluntary motor response means the contraction of skeletal muscle, but those contractions are not always voluntary in the sense that you have to want to perform them. Some somatic motor responses are reflexes, and often happen without a conscious decision to perform them. If your friend jumps out from behind a corner and yells “Boo!” you will be startled and you might scream or leap back. You didn’t decide to do that, and you may not have wanted to give your friend a reason to laugh at your expense, but it is a reflex involving skeletal muscle contractions. Other motor responses become automatic (in other words, unconscious) as a person learns motor skills (referred to as “habit learning” or “procedural memory”).
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is responsible for involuntary control of the body, usually for the sake of homeostasis (regulation of the internal environment). Sensory input for autonomic functions can be from sensory structures tuned to external or internal environmental stimuli. The motor output extends to smooth and cardiac muscle as well as glandular tissue. The role of the autonomic system is to regulate the organ systems of the body, which usually means to control homeostasis. Sweat glands, for example, are controlled by the autonomic system. When you are hot, sweating helps cool your body down. That is a homeostatic mechanism. But when you are nervous, you might start sweating also. That is not homeostatic, it is the physiological response to an emotional state.
There is another division of the nervous system that describes functional responses. The enteric nervous system (ENS) is responsible for controlling the smooth muscle and glandular tissue in your digestive system. It is a large part of the PNS, and is not dependent on the CNS. It is sometimes valid, however, to consider the enteric system to be a part of the autonomic system because the neural structures that make up the enteric system are a component of the autonomic output that regulates digestion. There are some differences between the two, but for our purposes here there will be a good bit of overlap. See Figure 16.10 for examples of where these divisions of the nervous system can be found.
Functions of the Cerebral Cortex
The cerebrum is the seat of many of the higher mental functions, such as memory and learning, language, and conscious perception, which are the subjects of subtests of the mental status exam. The cerebral cortex is the thin layer of gray matter on the outside of the cerebrum. It is approximately a millimeter thick in most regions and highly folded to fit within the limited space of the cranial vault. These higher functions are distributed across various regions of the cortex, and specific locations can be said to be responsible for particular functions. There is a limited set of regions, for example, that are involved in language function, and they can be subdivided on the basis of the particular part of language function that each governs.
Assessment of cerebral functions is directed at cognitive abilities. The abilities assessed through the mental status exam can be separated into four groups: orientation and memory, language and speech, sensorium, and judgment and abstract reasoning.
Orientation and Memory
Orientation is the patient’s awareness of his or her immediate circumstances. It is awareness of time, not in terms of the clock, but of the date and what is occurring around the patient. It is awareness of place, such that a patient should know where he or she is and why. It is also awareness of who the patient is—recognizing personal identity and being able to relate that to the examiner. The initial tests of orientation are based on the questions, “Do you know what the date is?” or “Do you know where you are?” or “What is your name?” Further understanding of a patient’s awareness of orientation can come from questions that address remote memory, such as “Who is the President of the United States?”, or asking what happened on a specific date.
Memory is largely a function of the temporal lobe, along with structures beneath the cerebral cortex such as the hippocampus and the amygdala. The storage of memory requires these structures of the medial temporal lobe. A famous case of a man who had both medial temporal lobes removed to treat intractable epilepsy provided insight into the relationship between the structures of the brain and the function of memory.
The prefrontal cortex can also be tested for the ability to organize information. In one subtest of the mental status exam called set generation, the patient is asked to generate a list of words that all start with the same letter, but not to include proper nouns or names. The expectation is that a person can generate such a list of at least 10 words within 1 minute. Many people can likely do this much more quickly, but the standard separates the accepted normal from those with compromised prefrontal cortices.
Read this article to learn about a young man who texts his fiancée in a panic as he finds that he is having trouble remembering things. At the hospital, a neurologist administers the mental status exam, which is mostly normal except for the three-word recall test. The young man could not recall them even 30 seconds after hearing them and repeating them back to the doctor. An undiscovered mass in the mediastinum region was found to be Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer that affects the immune system and likely caused antibodies to attack the nervous system. The patient eventually regained his ability to remember, though the events in the hospital were always elusive. Considering that the effects on memory were temporary, but resulted in the loss of the specific events of the hospital stay, what regions of the brain were likely to have been affected by the antibodies and what type of memory does that represent?
Language and Speech
Language is, arguably, a very human aspect of neurological function. There are certainly strides being made in understanding communication in other species, but much of what makes the human experience seemingly unique is its basis in language. Any understanding of our species is necessarily reflective, as suggested by the question “What am I?” And the fundamental answer to this question is suggested by the famous quote by René Descartes: “Cogito Ergo Sum” (translated from Latin as “I think, therefore I am”). Formulating an understanding of yourself is largely describing who you are to yourself. It is a confusing topic to delve into, but language is certainly at the core of what it means to be self-aware.
The neurological exam has two specific subtests that address language. One measures the ability of the patient to understand language by asking them to follow a set of instructions to perform an action, such as “touch your right finger to your left elbow and then to your right knee.” Another subtest assesses the fluency and coherency of language by having the patient generate descriptions of objects or scenes depicted in drawings, and by reciting sentences or explaining a written passage.
An important example of multimodal integrative areas is associated with language function (see Figure 16.11). Adjacent to the auditory association cortex, at the end of the lateral sulcus just anterior to the visual cortex, is Wernicke’s area. In the lateral aspect of the frontal lobe, just anterior to the region of the motor cortex associated with the head and neck, is Broca’s area. Both regions were originally described on the basis of losses of speech and language, which is called aphasia. The aphasia associated with Broca’s area is known as an expressive aphasia, which means that speech production is compromised. This type of aphasia is often described as non-fluency because the ability to say some words leads to broken or halting speech. Grammar can also appear to be lost. The aphasia associated with Wernicke’s area is known as a receptive aphasia, which is not a loss of speech production, but a loss of understanding of content. Patients, after recovering from acute forms of this aphasia, report not being able to understand what is said to them or what they are saying themselves, but they often cannot keep from talking.
The two regions are connected by white matter tracts that run between the posterior temporal lobe and the lateral aspect of the frontal lobe. Conduction aphasia associated with damage to this connection refers to the problem of connecting the understanding of language to the production of speech. This is a very rare condition, but is likely to present as an inability to faithfully repeat spoken language.
Those parts of the brain involved in the reception and interpretation of sensory stimuli are referred to collectively as the sensorium. The cerebral cortex has several regions that are necessary for sensory perception. Several of the subtests can reveal activity associated with these sensory modalities, such as being able to hear a question or see a picture. Two subtests assess specific functions of these cortical areas.
The first is praxis, a practical exercise in which the patient performs a task completely on the basis of verbal description without any demonstration from the examiner. The second subtest for sensory perception is gnosis, which involves two tasks. The first task, known as stereognosis, involves the naming of objects strictly on the basis of the somatosensory information that comes from manipulating them. The patient keeps their eyes closed and is given a common object, such as a coin, that they have to identify. The patient should be able to indicate the particular type of coin, such as a dime versus a penny, or a nickel versus a quarter, on the basis of the sensory cues involved. For example, the size, thickness, or weight of the coin may be an indication, or to differentiate the pairs of coins suggested here, the smooth or corrugated edge of the coin will correspond to the particular denomination. The second task, graphesthesia, is to recognize numbers or letters written on the palm of the hand with a dull pointer, such as a pen cap.
Judgment and Abstract Reasoning
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for the functions responsible for planning and making decisions. In the mental status exam, the subtest that assesses judgment and reasoning is directed at three aspects of frontal lobe function. First, the examiner asks questions about problem solving, such as “If you see a house on fire, what would you do?” The patient is also asked to interpret common proverbs, such as “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” Additionally, pairs of words are compared for similarities, such as apple and orange, or lamp and cabinet.
Left Brain, Right Brain
Popular media often refer to right-brained and left-brained people, as if the brain were two independent halves that work differently for different people. This is a popular misinterpretation of an important neurological phenomenon. As an extreme measure to deal with a debilitating condition, the corpus callosum may be sectioned to overcome intractable epilepsy. When the connections between the two cerebral hemispheres are cut, interesting effects can be observed.
The reason for this is that the language functions of the cerebral cortex are localized to the left hemisphere in 95 percent of the population. Additionally, the left hemisphere is connected to the right side of the body through the corticospinal tract and the ascending tracts of the spinal cord. Motor commands from the precentral gyrus control the opposite side of the body, whereas sensory information processed by the postcentral gyrus is received from the opposite side of the body. For a verbal command to initiate movement of the right arm and hand, the left side of the brain needs to be connected by the corpus callosum. Language is processed in the left side of the brain and directly influences the left brain and right arm motor functions, but is sent to influence the right brain and left arm motor functions through the corpus callosum. Likewise, the left-handed sensory perception of what is in the left pocket travels across the corpus callosum from the right brain, so no verbal report on those contents would be possible if the hand happened to be in the pocket.
People who have had their corpus callosum cut can perform two independent tasks at the same time because the lines of communication between the right and left sides of his brain have been removed. Whereas a person with an intact corpus callosum cannot overcome the dominance of one hemisphere over the other, this patient can. If the left cerebral hemisphere is dominant in the majority of people, why would right-handedness be most common?
Common Nervous System Abbreviations
Disease and Disorders
Neurodegenerative Diseases – Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) , Multiple sclerosis (MS)
A class of disorders that affect the nervous system are the neurodegenerative diseases: Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Creutzfeld–Jacob disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), and other disorders that are the result of nervous tissue degeneration. In diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or ALS, neurons die; in diseases like MS, myelin is affected. Some of these disorders affect motor function, and others present with dementia. Some are the result of genetics, such as Huntington’s disease, or the result of autoimmunity, such as MS; others are not entirely understood, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Several diseases can result from the demyelination of axons. The causes of these diseases are not the same; some have genetic causes, some are caused by pathogens, and others are the result of autoimmune disorders. Though the causes are varied, the results are largely similar. The myelin insulation of axons is compromised, making electrical signaling slower (Betts, et al., 2021).
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is one such disease. It is an example of an autoimmune disease. The antibodies produced by lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) mark myelin as something that should not be in the body. This causes inflammation and the destruction of the myelin in the central nervous system. As the insulation around the axons is destroyed by the disease, scarring becomes obvious (Betts, et al., 2021).
Guillain-Barre (pronounced gee-YAN bah-RAY) syndrome is an example of a demyelinating disease of the peripheral nervous system. It is also the result of an autoimmune reaction, but the inflammation is in peripheral nerves. Sensory symptoms or motor deficits are common, and autonomic failures can lead to changes in the heart rhythm or a drop in blood pressure, especially when standing, which causes dizziness (Betts, et al., 2021).
Other Nerve Disorders
Infection, trauma, and congenital disorders can all lead to significant signs, as identified through the neurological exam. It is important to differentiate between an acute event, such as stroke, and a chronic or global condition such as blunt force trauma. Responses seen in the neurological exam can help. A loss of language function observed in all its aspects is more likely a global event as opposed to a discrete loss of one function, such as not being able to say certain types of words. A concern, however, is that a specific function—such as controlling the muscles of speech—may mask other language functions. The various subtests within the mental status exam can address these finer points and help clarify the underlying cause of the neurological loss (Betts, et al., 2021).
Damage to the nervous system can be limited to individual structures or can be distributed across broad areas of the brain and spinal cord. Localized, limited injury to the nervous system is most often the result of circulatory problems. The loss of blood flow to part of the brain is known as a stroke, or a cerebrovascular accident (CVA). There are two main types of stroke, depending on how the blood supply is compromised: ischemic and hemorrhagic. An ischemic stroke is the loss of blood flow to an area because vessels are blocked or narrowed. This is often caused by an embolus, which may be a blood clot or fat deposit. Ischemia may also be the result of thickening of the blood vessel wall, or a drop in blood volume in the brain known as hypovolemia. A hemorrhagic stroke is bleeding into the brain because of a damaged blood vessel. Accumulated blood fills a region of the cranial vault and presses against the tissue in the brain (see Figure 16.12) (Betts, et al., 2021).
Cerebral Palsy (CP) is caused by an interruption to the normal development of a person’s brain leading to weakness with muscles. Depending on the area of the brain that is affected, signs and symptoms will vary in the type and severity between individuals. Balance and coordination are often challenging due the inability to control muscles (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019). To learn more about cerebral palsy please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s web page on cerebral palsy.
Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 61,000 Americans die each year due to causes related to traumatic brain injuries. Brain injuries range from moderate to severe and include concussions. TBI can be caused by falls, automobile accidents, sports, assaults and strokes. Investment has been made to educate people on how to prevent TBIs with a focus on concussions from sports (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021).
Medical Terms in Context
Primary Specialist – Neurologist
Neurologists are medical doctors who complete an additional specialized training in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disorders and conditions related to the brain, spinal cord, nerves and muscles (American Academy of Neurology, 2021). For more details visit the American Academy of Neurology’s webpage.
Procedures Related to the Nervous System
Lumbar Puncture (Spinal Tap)
This procedure can help a neurologist diagnose myasthenia gravis. In this test, the doctor injects with a medicine called Tensilon. Then they observe how it affects muscle movements (Bergen, 2018). For more information visit Healthline’s Tensilon Test web page.
An EMG measures electrical activity between your brain or spinal cord to a peripheral nerve. This nerve is found in your arms and legs, and is responsible for muscle control during times of movement and rest. EMGs can help your neurologist diagnose spinal cord disease as well as general muscle or nerve dysfunction (Moores & Cirino, 2018).
With electrodes applied to your scalp, an EEG measures electrical activity in the brain. It’s used to help diagnose conditions of the brain, including inflammation, tumors, and injuries, as well as seizures and psychiatric disorders.
American Academy of Neurology. (2021). What is a neurologist? https://www.aan.com/tools-and-resources/medical-students/careers-in-neurology/what-is-a-neurologist/
Bergen, T. (2018). Tensilon test. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/tensilon-test
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Mental health. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/learn/index.htm
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). TBI: Get the facts. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/traumaticbraininjury/get_the_facts.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Cerebral palsy (CP). CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/dotw/cerebral-palsy/
Cherney, K. & De Pietro, M. (2019). Neurologist. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/find-care/articles/neurologists/neurologist
[CrashCourse]. (2015, Feburary 23). The nervous system, part 1: Crash course A&P #8 [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPix_X-9t7E
Mayo Clinic. (2020). Lumbar puncture (spinal tap). https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/lumbar-puncture/about/pac-20394631
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Neurologist. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/neurologist
Moores, D., & Cirino, E. (2018). Electromyography (EMG). Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/electromyography
Unless otherwise indicated, this chapter contains material adapted from Anatomy and Physiology (on OpenStax), by Betts, et al. and is used under a a CC BY 4.0 international license. Download and access this book for free at https://openstax.org/books/anatomy-and-physiology/pages/1-introduction.
instrument to view small particles by enlarging the particles
branch of physiology that studies the electrical properties of the biological cells and tissues
includes the brain and spinal cord
all nervous tissue that is outside of the brain and spinal cord
region of the adult brain that is responsible for higher neurological functions such as memory, emotion, and consciousness
a collection of nucleic nerve tissue - has function in both the autonomic and endocrine systems - regulates homeostasis