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Chapter: Medical Physiology: Organization of the Nervous System, Basic Functions of Synapses, “Transmitter Substances”

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Major Levels of Central Nervous System Function

The human nervous system has inherited special functional capabilities from each stage of human evolutionary development.

Major Levels of Central Nervous System Function

The human nervous system has inherited special functional capabilities from each stage of human evolutionary development. From this heritage, three major levels of the central nervous system have specific func-tional characteristics: (1) the spinal cord level, (2) the lower brain or subcortical level, and (3) the higher brain or cortical level.

Spinal Cord Level

We often think of the spinal cord as being only a conduit for signals from the periphery of the body to the brain, or in the opposite direction from the brain back to the body. This is far from the truth. Even after the spinal cord has been cut in the high neck region, many highly organized spinal cord functions still occur. For instance, neuronal circuits in the cord can cause (1) walking movements, (2) reflexes that with-draw portions of the body from painful objects, (3) reflexes that stiffen the legs to support the body against gravity, and (4) reflexes that control local blood vessels, gastrointestinal movements, or urinary excre-tion. In fact, the upper levels of the nervous system often operate not by sending signals directly to the periphery of the body but by sending signals to the control centers of the cord, simply “commanding” the cord centers to perform their functions.

Lower Brain or Subcortical Level

Many, if not most, of what we call subconscious activ-ities of the body are controlled in the lower areas of the brain—in the medulla, pons, mesencephalon, hypothalamus, thalamus, cerebellum, and basal ganglia. For instance, subconscious control of arterial pressure and respiration is achieved mainly in the medulla and pons. Control of equilibrium is a com-bined function of the older portions of the cerebellum and the reticular substance of the medulla, pons, and mesencephalon. Feeding reflexes, such as salivation and licking of the lips in response to the taste of food, are controlled by areas in the medulla, pons, mesen-cephalon, amygdala, and hypothalamus. And many emotional patterns, such as anger, excitement, sexual response, reaction to pain, and reaction to pleasure, can still occur after destruction of much of the cere-bral cortex.

Higher Brain or Cortical Level

After the preceding account of the many nervous system functions that occur at the cord and lower brain levels, one may ask, what is left for the cerebral cortex to do? The answer to this is complex, but it begins with the fact that the cerebral cortex is an extremely large memory storehouse. The cortex never functions alone but always in association with lower centers of the nervous system.

Without the cerebral cortex, the functions of the lower brain centers are often imprecise. The vast store-house of cortical information usually converts these functions to determinative and precise operations.

Finally, the cerebral cortex is essential for most of our thought processes, but it cannot function by itself. In fact, it is the lower brain centers, not the cortex, that initiate wakefulness in the cerebral cortex, thus opening its bank of memories to the thinking machin-ery of the brain. Thus, each portion of the nervous system performs specific functions. But it is the cortex that opens a world of stored information for use by the mind.

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