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12: The Nervous System and Nervous Tissue

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    699
  • One easy way to begin to understand the structure of the nervous system is to start with the large divisions and work through to a more in-depth understanding. In other chapters, the finer details of the nervous system will be explained, but first looking at an overview of the system will allow you to begin to understand how its parts work together. The focus of this chapter is on nervous (neural) tissue, both its structure and its function. But before you learn about that, you will see a big picture of the system—actually, a few big pictures.

    • 12.0: Prelude to the Nervous System
      The nervous system is a very complex organ system. In Peter D. Kramer’s book Listening to Prozac, a pharmaceutical researcher is quoted as saying, “If the human brain were simple enough for us to understand, we would be too simple to understand it” (1994). That quote is from the early 1990s; in the two decades since, progress has continued at an amazing rate within the scientific disciplines of neuroscience.
    • 12.1: Basic Structures and Function of the Nervous System
      The picture you have in your mind of the nervous system probably includes the brain, the nervous tissue contained within the cranium, and the spinal cord, the extension of nervous tissue within the vertebral column. That suggests it is made of two organs—and you may not even think of the spinal cord as an organ—but the nervous system is a very complex structure. Within the brain, many different and separate regions are responsible for many different and separate functions.
    • 12.2: Nervous Tissue
      Nervous tissue is composed of two types of cells, neurons and glial cells. Neurons are the primary type of cell that most anyone associates with the nervous system. They are responsible for the computation and communication that the nervous system provides. They are electrically active and release chemical signals to target cells. Glial cells, or glia, are known to play a supporting role for nervous tissue.
    • 12.3: The Function of Nervous Tissue
      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.
    • 12.4: The Action Potential
      The functions of the nervous system—sensation, integration, and response—depend on the functions of the neurons underlying these pathways. To understand how neurons are able to communicate, it is necessary to describe the role of an excitable membrane in generating these signals. The basis of this communication is the action potential, which demonstrates how changes in the membrane can constitute a signal.
    • 12.5: Communication Between Neurons
      The electrical changes taking place within a neuron, as described in the previous section, are similar to a light switch being turned on. A stimulus starts the depolarization, but the action potential runs on its own once a threshold has been reached. The question is now, “What flips the light switch on?” Temporary changes to the cell membrane voltage can result from neurons receiving information from the environment, or from the action of one neuron on another.

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