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Biology LibreTexts

35.1A: Neurons and Glial Cells

  • Page ID
    13864
  • Neurons and glia coordinate actions and transmit signals in the CNS and PNS.

    LEARNING OBJECTIVES

    Recall the differences in structure and function between the central and peripheral nervous systems

    KEY TAKEAWAYS

    Key Points

    • The central nervous system contains the brain and spinal cord; the peripheral nervous system consists of nerves, motor neurons, the autonomic nervous system, and the enteric nervous system.
    • The nervous system coordinates the voluntary and involuntary actions of the body by transmitting signals from the brain to the other body parts and listening for feedback.
    • Nervous systems vary across different animals; some invertebrates lack a true nervous system or true brain, while other invertebrates have a brain and a system of nerves.
    • Unlike vertebrates, not all invertebrates have both a CNS and PNS; their nerve cords are located ventrally rather than dorsally.
    • The functions of the nervous system are performed by two types of cells: neurons, which transmit signals between them and from one part of the body to another, and glia, which regulate homeostasis, providing support and protection to the function of neurons.

    Key Terms

    • neuron: cell of the nervous system that conducts nerve impulses; consisting of an axon and several dendrites
    • nervous system: an organ system that coordinates the body’s voluntary and involuntary actions and transmits signals between different parts of the body
    • glial cell: cell in the nervous system that supports and protects neurons

    The Nervous System: Introduction

    The nervous system coordinates the body’s voluntary and involuntary actions and transmits signals between different parts of the body. Nervous tissue first arose in wormlike organisms approximately 550 to 600 million years ago. In most types of vertebrate animals, it consists of two main parts: the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The CNS contains the brain and spinal cord. The PNS consists mainly of nerves, which are long fibers that connect the CNS to every other part of the body. The PNS includes motor neurons (mediating voluntary movement), the autonomic nervous system (comprising the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulate involuntary functions), and the enteric nervous system (a semi-independent part of the nervous system whose function is to control the gastrointestinal system).

    The nervous system performs several functions simultaneously. For example, as you are reading, the visual system is processing what is seen on the page; the motor system controls the turn of the pages (or click of the mouse); the prefrontal cortex maintains attention. Even fundamental functions, like breathing and regulation of body temperature, are controlled by the nervous system. A nervous system is an organism’s control center: it processes sensory information from outside (and inside) the body and controls all behaviors, from eating to sleeping to finding a mate.

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    Nervous system at work: An athlete’s nervous system is hard at work during the planning and execution of a movement as precise as a high jump. Parts of the nervous system are involved in determining how hard to push off and when to turn, as well as controlling the muscles throughout the body that make this complicated movement possible without knocking the bar down; all in just a few seconds.

    Nervous systems throughout the animal kingdom vary in structure and complexity. Some organisms, such as sea sponges, lack a true nervous system. Others, such as jellyfish, lack a true brain. Instead, they have a system of separate-but-connected nerve cells (neurons) called a “nerve net.” Echinoderms, such as sea stars, have nerve cells that are bundled into fibers called nerves. Flatworms of the phylum Platyhelminthes have both a central nervous system, made up of a small “brain” and two nerve cords, and a peripheral nervous system containing a system of nerves that extend throughout the body. The insect nervous system is more complex, but also fairly decentralized. It contains a brain, ventral nerve cord, and ganglia (clusters of connected neurons). These ganglia can control movements and behaviors without input from the brain. Octopi may have the most complicated of invertebrate nervous systems. They have neurons that are organized in specialized lobes and eyes that are structurally similar to vertebrate species.

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    Various nervous systems: (a) In cnidarians, nerve cells form a decentralized nerve net. (b) In echinoderms, nerve cells are bundled into fibers called nerves. (c) In animals exhibiting bilateral symmetry, such as planarians, neurons cluster into an anterior brain that processes information. (d) In addition to a brain, arthropods have clusters of nerve cell bodies, called peripheral ganglia, located along the ventral nerve cord. Mollusks, such as squid and (e) octopi, which must hunt to survive, have complex brains containing millions of neurons. In (f) vertebrates, the brain and spinal cord comprise the central nervous system, while neurons extending into the rest of the body comprise the peripheral nervous system.

    Compared to invertebrates, vertebrate nervous systems are more complex, centralized, and specialized. While there is great diversity among different vertebrate nervous systems, they all share a basic structure: a CNS and a PNS. One interesting difference between the nervous systems of invertebrates and vertebrates is that the nerve cords of many invertebrates are located ventrally (near the abdomen), whereas the vertebrate spinal cords are located dorsally (near the back). There is debate among evolutionary biologists as to whether these different nervous system plans evolved separately or whether the invertebrate body plan arrangement somehow “flipped” during the evolution of vertebrates.

    The nervous system is made up of neurons, specialized cells that can receive and transmit chemical or electrical signals, and glia, cells that provide support functions for the neurons by playing an information processing role that is complementary to neurons. A neuron can be compared to an electrical wire: it transmits a signal from one place to another. Glia can be compared to the workers at the electric company who make sure wires go to the right places, maintain the wires, and take down wires that are broken. Although glial cells support neurons, recent evidence suggests they also assume some of the signaling functions of neurons.