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15.8D: The Peripheral Nervous System

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    Figure Nervous system

    The nervous system is divided into the peripheral nervous system (PNS) and the central nervous system (CNS).
    The PNS consists of

    • sensory neurons running from stimulus receptors that inform the CNS of the stimuli
    • motor neurons running from the CNS to the muscles and glands - called effectors - that take action.

    The CNS consists of the spinal cord and the brain.

    The peripheral nervous system is subdivided into the

    • sensory-somatic nervous system and the
    • autonomic nervous system

    The Sensory-Somatic Nervous System

    The sensory-somatic system consists of 12 pairs of cranial nerves and 31 pairs of spinal nerves.

    The Cranial Nerves

    Nerves Type Function
    sensory olfaction (smell)
    sensory vision
    (Contain 38% of all the axons connecting to the brain.)
    motor* eyelid and eyeball muscles
    motor* eyeball muscles
    mixed Sensory: facial and mouth sensation
    Motor: chewing
    motor* eyeball movement
    mixed Sensory: taste
    Motor: facial muscles and
    salivary glands
    sensory hearing and balance
    mixed Sensory: taste
    Motor: swallowing
    mixed main nerve of the
    parasympathetic nervous system (PNS)
    motor swallowing; moving head and shoulder
    motor* tongue muscles
    Figure Autonomic nervous system

    The autonomic nervous system consists of sensory neurons and motor neurons that run between the central nervous system (especially the hypothalamus and medulla oblongata) and various internal organs such as the heart, lungs, viscera and the glands (both exocrine and endocrine). It is responsible for monitoring conditions in the internal environment and bringing about appropriate changes in them. The contraction of both smooth muscle and cardiac muscle is controlled by motor neurons of the autonomic system. The actions of the autonomic nervous system are largely involuntary (in contrast to those of the sensory-somatic system). It also differs from the sensory-somatic system as it is using two groups of motor neurons to stimulate the effectors instead of one. First, the preganglionic neurons arise in the CNS and run to a ganglion in the body. Here they synapse with postganglionic neurons, which run to the effector organ (cardiac muscle, smooth muscle, or a gland).

    The autonomic nervous system has two subdivisions:

    • sympathetic nervous system
    • parasympathetic nervous system.

    The Sympathetic Nervous System

    Figure Sympathetic nervous system

    The preganglionic motor neurons of the sympathetic system (shown in black) arise in the spinal cord. They pass into sympathetic ganglia which are organized into two chains that run parallel to and on either side of the spinal cord. The preganglionic neuron may do one of three things in the sympathetic ganglion:

    • synapse with postganglionic neurons (shown in white) which then reenter the spinal nerve and ultimately pass out to the sweat glands and the walls of blood vessels near the surface of the body.
    • pass up or down the sympathetic chain and finally synapse with postganglionic neurons in a higher or lower ganglion
    • leave the ganglion by way of a cord leading to special ganglia (e.g. the solar plexus) in the viscera. Here it may synapse with postganglionic sympathetic neurons running to the smooth muscular walls of the viscera. However, some of these preganglionic neurons pass right on through this second ganglion and into the adrenal medulla. Here they synapse with the highly-modified postganglionic cells that make up the secretory portion of the adrenal medulla.

    The neurotransmitter of the preganglionic sympathetic neurons is acetylcholine (ACh). It stimulates action potentials in the postganglionic neurons. The neurotransmitter released by the postganglionic neurons is noradrenaline (also called norepinephrine). The action of noradrenaline on a particular gland or muscle is excitatory is some cases, inhibitory in others. At excitatory terminals, ATP may be released along with noradrenaline.

    The release of noradrenaline

    • stimulates heartbeat
    • raises blood pressure
    • dilates the pupils
    • dilates the trachea and bronchi
    • stimulates glycogenolysis — the conversion of liver glycogen into glucose
    • shunts blood away from the skin and viscera to the skeletal muscles, brain, and heart
    • inhibits peristalsis in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract
    • inhibits contraction of the bladder and rectum
    • and, at least in rats and mice, increases the number of AMPA receptors in the hippocampus and thus increases long-term potentiation (LTP).

    In short, stimulation of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system prepares the body for emergencies: for "fight or flight" (and, perhaps, enhances the memory of the event that triggered the response).

    Activation of the sympathetic system is quite general because

    • a single preganglionic neuron usually synapses with many postganglionic neurons
    • the release of adrenaline from the adrenal medulla into the blood ensures that all the cells of the body will be exposed to sympathetic stimulation even if no postganglionic neurons reach them directly.

    The Parasympathetic Nervous System

    Figure Loewi's stimulation

    The Nobel Prize winning physiologist Otto Loewi discovered (in 1920) that the effect of both sympathetic and parasympathetic stimulation is mediated by released chemicals. He removed the living heart from a frog with its sympathetic and parasympathetic nerve supply intact. As expected, stimulation of the first speeded up the heart while stimulation of the second slowed it down.

    Loewi found that these two responses would occur in a second frog heart supplied with a salt solution taken from the stimulated heart. Electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve leading to the first heart not only slowed its beat but, a short time later, slowed that of the second heart also. The substance responsible was later shown to be acetylcholine. During sympathetic stimulation, adrenaline (in the frog) is released.

    Parasympathetic stimulation causes

    • slowing down of the heartbeat (as Loewi demonstrated)
    • lowering of blood pressure
    • constriction of the pupils
    • increased blood flow to the skin and viscera
    • peristalsis of the GI tract

    In short, the parasympathetic system returns the body functions to normal after they have been altered by sympathetic stimulation. In times of danger, the sympathetic system prepares the body for violent activity. The parasympathetic system reverses these changes when the danger is over. The vagus nerves also help keep inflammation under control. Inflammation stimulates nearby sensory neurons of the vagus. When these nerve impulses reach the medulla oblongata, they are relayed back along motor fibers to the inflamed area. Release of acetylcholine suppresses the release of inflammatory cytokines, e.g., tumor necrosis factor (TNF), from macrophages in the inflamed tissue.

    Although the autonomic nervous system is considered to be involuntary, this is not entirely true. A certain amount of conscious control can be exerted over it as has long been demonstrated by practitioners of Yoga and Zen Buddhism. During their periods of meditation, these people are clearly able to alter a number of autonomic functions including heart rate and the rate of oxygen consumption. These changes are not simply a reflection of decreased physical activity because they exceed the amount of change occurring during sleep or hypnosis.

    This page titled 15.8D: The Peripheral Nervous System is shared under a CC BY 3.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by John W. Kimball via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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