13.3 The Function of Nervous Tissue
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 summarised in Figure 13.3.1.
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 (Figure 13.3.2), 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 signalling 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 signalling molecule called a neurotransmitter.
The neurotransmitter diffuses across the short distance of the synapse and binds to a receptor protein of the target neuron. When the molecular signal binds to the receptor, the cell membrane of the target neuron changes its electrical state and a new graded potential begins. If that graded potential is strong enough to reach threshold, the second neuron generates an action potential at its axon hillock. The target of this neuron is another neuron in the thalamus of the brain, the part of the CNS that acts as a relay for sensory information. At another synapse, neurotransmitter is released and binds to its receptor. The thalamus then sends the sensory information to the cerebral cortex, the outermost layer of grey matter in the brain, where conscious perception of that water temperature begins.
Within the cerebral cortex, information is processed among many neurons, integrating the stimulus of the water temperature with other sensory stimuli, with your emotional state (you just aren’t ready to wake up; the bed is calling to you), memories (of the lab notes you must study before a quiz). Finally, a plan is developed about what to do, whether that is to turn the temperature up, turn the whole shower off and go back to bed, or step into the shower. To do any of these things, the cerebral cortex must send a command out to your body to move muscles (Figure 13.3.3).
A region of the cortex is specialised for sending signals down to the spinal cord for movement. The upper motor neuron is in this region, called the precentral gyrus of the frontal cortex, which has an axon that extends all the way down the spinal cord. At the level of the spinal cord at which this axon makes a synapse, a graded potential occurs in the cell membrane of a lower motor neuron. This second motor neuron is responsible for causing muscle fibres to contract. In the manner described in the chapter on muscle tissue, an action potential travels along the motor neuron axon into the periphery. The axon terminates on muscle fibres at the neuromuscular junction. Acetylcholine is released at this specialised synapse, which causes the muscle action potential to begin, following a large potential known as an end plate potential. When the lower motor neuron excites the muscle fibre, it contracts. All of this occurs in a fraction of a second, but this story is the basis of how the nervous system functions.
Understanding how the nervous system works could be a driving force in your career. Studying neurophysiology is a very rewarding path to follow. It means that there is a lot of work to do, but the rewards are worth the effort.
There are several ways in which a person can become a registered psychologist in Australia. The first step is to complete an undergraduate psychology course (e.g., bachelor’s degree, majoring in Psychology) which takes 3 years full-time to complete. The next step is to complete an additional year specialising in psychology (e.g., Honours or postgraduate diploma). The third step is to gain a provisional registration. This can be done in several ways. A person can either undergo ‘4 + 2 internship’ which includes a two year supervised practice, or a ‘5 + 1 internship’ which includes a fifth year study of psychology through a graduate diploma or a masters of professional psychology with one year of supervised practice. Both streams end with a general registration. There are also research streams which can be undertaken. A person can complete a two-year professional master’s degree, followed by a two-year supervised practice post professional master’s program, with 80 hours supervision and 80 hours continuing professional development (CPD) (PsyBA registrar program). Alternatively, someone can carry out a four-year combined professional masters and Doctor of Philosophy Course, followed by a 1.5 year of supervised practice and 60 hours of supervision plus 60 hours (CPD) (PsyBA registrar program). Finally, a person can complete a 3-4-year professional doctorate followed by one-year supervised practice with 40 hours supervision plus 40 hours CPD (PsyBA registrar program). All three of these final streams practice endorsement in a relevant stream.
Sensation starts with the activation of a sensory ending, such as the thermoreceptor in the skin sensing the temperature of the water. The sensory endings in the skin initiate an electrical signal that travels along the sensory axon within a nerve into the spinal cord, where it synapses with a neuron in the grey matter of the spinal cord. The temperature information represented in that electrical signal is passed to the next neuron by a chemical signal that diffuses across the small gap of the synapse and initiates a new electrical signal in the target cell. That signal travels through the sensory pathway to the brain, passing through the thalamus, where conscious perception of the water temperature is made possible by the cerebral cortex. Following integration of that information with other cognitive processes and sensory information, the brain sends a command back down to the spinal cord to initiate a motor response by controlling a skeletal muscle. The motor pathway is composed of two cells, the upper motor neuron and the lower motor neuron. The upper motor neuron has its cell body in the cerebral cortex and synapses on a cell in the grey matter of the spinal cord. The lower motor neuron is that cell in the grey matter of the spinal cord and its axon extends into the periphery where it synapses with a skeletal muscle in a neuromuscular junction.
Critical Thinking Questions
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