Human Central Nervous System

The human nervous system can be conveniently subdivided into two divisions: the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system (the nerves extending to and from the central nervous system).

Spinal cord

The spinal cord of the central nervous system is a white cord of tissue passing through the bony tunnel made by the vertebrae. The spinal cord extends from the base of the brain to the bottom of the backbone. Three membranes called meninges surround the spinal cord and protect it. The outer tissue of the spinal cord is white (white matter), while the inner tissue is gray (gray matter).

Thirty-one pairs of projections called nerve roots extend out along each side of the spinal cord. The nerve roots are sites of axons belonging to sensory and motor neurons. A central canal in the spinal cord carries cerebrospinal fluid, which provides for the nutrition and gaseous needs of the cord tissue. The neurons of the spinal cord serve as a coordinating center for the reflex arc and a connecting system between the peripheral nervous system and the brain.


The brain is the organizing and processing center of the central nervous system. It is the site of consciousness, sensation, memory, and intelligence. The brain receives impulses from the spinal cord and from 12 pairs of cranial nerves coming from and extending to the senses and to other organs. In addition, the brain initiates activities without environmental stimuli.

Two major hemispheres, the left and the right hemispheres, make up the tissue of the brain. The outer portion of the brain consists of gray matter, while the inner portion is white matter. Three major portions of the brain are recognized: the hindbrain, the midbrain, and the forebrain.

The hindbrain consists of the medulla, cerebellum, and pons. The medulla is the swelling at the tip of the brain that serves as the passageway for nerves extending to and from the brain. The cerebellum lies adjacent to the medulla and serves as a coordinating center for motor activity; that is, it coordinates muscle contractions. The pons is the swelling between the medulla and the midbrain. The pons acts as a bridge between various portions of the brain.

The midbrain lies between the hindbrain and the forebrain. It consists of a collection of crossing nerve tracts and is the site of the reticular formation, a group of fibers that arouse the forebrain when something unusual happens.

The forebrain consists of the cerebrum, the thalamus, the hypothalamus, and the limbic system. The cerebrum contains creases and furrows called convolutions that permit the cerebral hemisphere to accommodate more than 10 billion cells. Each hemisphere of the cerebrum has four lobes, and activities such as speech, vision, movement, hearing, and smell occur in these lobes. Higher mental activities such as learning, memory, logic, creativity, and emotion also occur in the cerebrum.

The thalamus serves as an integration point for sensory impulses, while the hypothalamus synthesizes hormones for storage in the pituitary gland. The hypothalamus also appears to be a control center for such visceral functions as hunger, thirst, body temperature, and blood pressure. The limbic system is a collection of structures that ring the edge of the brain and apparently function as centers of emotion.