The nervous system has two main parts:
- The central nervous system is made up of the brain and spinal cord.
- The peripheral nervous system is made up of nerves that branch off from the spinal cord and extend to all parts of the body.
The nervous system transmits signals between the brain and the rest of the body, including internal organs. In this way, the nervous system’s activity controls the ability to move, breathe, see, think, and more.1
The basic unit of the nervous system is a nerve cell, or neuron. The human brain contains about 100 billion neurons. A neuron has a cell body, which includes the cell nucleus, and special extensions called axons (pronounced AK-sonz) and dendrites (pronounced DEN-drahytz). Bundles of axons, called nerves, are found throughout the body. Axons and dendrites allow neurons to communicate, even across long distances.
Different types of neurons control or perform different activities. For instance, motor neurons transmit messages from the brain to the muscles to generate movement. Sensory neurons detect light, sound, odor, taste, pressure, and heat and send messages about those things to the brain. Other parts of the nervous system control involuntary processes. These include keeping a regular heartbeat, releasing hormones like adrenaline, opening the pupil in response to light, and regulating the digestive system.
When a neuron sends a message to another neuron, it sends an electrical signal down the length of its axon. At the end of the axon, the electrical signal changes to a chemical signal. The axon then releases the chemical signal with chemical messengers called neurotransmitters (pronounced noor-oh-TRANS-mit-erz) into the synapse (pronounced SIN-aps)—the space between the end of an axon and the tip of a dendrite from another neuron. The neurotransmitters move the signal through the synapse to the neighboring dendrite, which converts the chemical signal back into an electrical signal. The electrical signal then travels through the neuron and goes through the same conversion processes as it moves to neighboring neurons.
The nervous system also includes non-neuron cells, called glia (pronounced GLEE-uh). Glia perform many important functions that keep the nervous system working properly. For example, glia:
- Help support and hold neurons in place
- Protect neurons
- Create insulation called myelin, which helps move nerve impulses
- Repair neurons and help restore neuron function
- Trim out dead neurons
- Regulate neurotransmitters
The brain is made up of many networks of communicating neurons and glia. These networks allow different parts of the brain to “talk” to each other and work together to control body functions, emotions, thinking, behavior, and other activities.1,2,3