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By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Distinguish the major functions of the nervous system: sensation, integration, and response
  • List the sequence of events in a simple sensory receptor–motor response pathway

Having looked at the components of nervous tissue, and the basic anatomy of the nervous system, next comes an understanding of how nervous tissue is capable of communicating within the nervous system. Before getting to the nuts and bolts of how this works, an illustration of how the components come together will be helpful. An example is summarized in [link] .

Testing the water

This diagram shows the complete pathway a nerve impulse takes when a person tests the temperature of shower water with their hand. First, a sensory nerve ending in the index finger sends a nerve impulse to the spinal cord. A cross section of one segment of the vertebrae is shown from a superior view. The sensory nerve connected to the nerve ending is located in the dorsal root ganglion. The nerve ending is a dendrite of the sensory neuron, as it also has an axon that synapses with an interneuron. The interneuron then synapses with a second interneuron in the thalamus. This second interneuron synapses with brain tissue in the cerebral cortex, allowing conscious perception of the water temperature. The brain then initiates a motor command by stimulating an upper motor neuron in the cerebral cortex. The axon of the upper motor neuron extends all the way to the spinal cord, where it synapses with a lower motor neuron in the gray matter of the spinal cord. The impulse then travels down the lower motor neuron back to the hand where it synapses with the skeletal muscles of the hand. This triggers the muscle contractions that turn the dials of the shower to adjust the water temperature.
(1) The sensory neuron has endings in the skin that sense a stimulus such as water temperature. The strength of the signal that starts here is dependent on the strength of the stimulus. (2) The graded potential from the sensory endings, if strong enough, will initiate an action potential at the initial segment of the axon (which is immediately adjacent to the sensory endings in the skin). (3) The axon of the peripheral sensory neuron enters the spinal cord and contacts another neuron in the gray matter. The contact is a synapse where another graded potential is caused by the release of a chemical signal from the axon terminals. (4) An action potential is initiated at the initial segment of this neuron and travels up the sensory pathway to a region of the brain called the thalamus. Another synapse passes the information along to the next neuron. (5) The sensory pathway ends when the signal reaches the cerebral cortex. (6) After integration with neurons in other parts of the cerebral cortex, a motor command is sent from the precentral gyrus of the frontal cortex. (7) The upper motor neuron sends an action potential down to the spinal cord. The target of the upper motor neuron is the dendrites of the lower motor neuron in the gray matter of the spinal cord. (8) The axon of the lower motor neuron emerges from the spinal cord in a nerve and connects to a muscle through a neuromuscular junction to cause contraction of the target muscle.

Imagine you are about to take a shower in the morning before going to school. You have turned on the faucet to start the water as you prepare to get in the shower. After a few minutes, you expect the water to be a temperature that will be comfortable to enter. So you put your hand out into the spray of water. What happens next depends on how your nervous system interacts with the stimulus of the water temperature and what you do in response to that stimulus.

Found in the skin of your fingers or toes is a type of sensory receptor that is sensitive to temperature, called a thermoreceptor    . When you place your hand under the shower ( [link] ), the cell membrane of the thermoreceptors changes its electrical state (voltage). The amount of change is dependent on the strength of the stimulus (how hot the water is). This is called a graded potential    . If the stimulus is strong, the voltage of the cell membrane will change enough to generate an electrical signal that will travel down the axon. You have learned about this type of signaling before, with respect to the interaction of nerves and muscles at the neuromuscular junction. The voltage at which such a signal is generated is called the threshold    , and the resulting electrical signal is called an action potential    . In this example, the action potential travels—a process known as propagation    —along the axon from the axon hillock to the axon terminals and into the synaptic end bulbs. When this signal reaches the end bulbs, it causes the release of a signaling molecule called a neurotransmitter    .

Questions & Answers

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