Nerves (yellow) in the arm
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A nerve is an enclosed, cable-like bundle of axons (nerve fibers, the long and slender projections of neurons) in the peripheral nervous system. A nerve provides a common pathway for the electrochemical nerve impulses that are transmitted along each of the axons to peripheral organs.
In the central nervous system, the analogous structures are known as tracts. Neurons are sometimes called nerve cells, though this term is potentially misleading since many neurons do not form nerves, and nerves also include non-neuronal Schwann cells that coat the axons in myelin.
Each nerve is a cordlike structure containing bundles of axons. Within a nerve, each axon is surrounded by a layer of connective tissue called the endoneurium. The axons are bundled together into groups called fascicles, and each fascicle is wrapped in a layer of connective tissue called the perineurium. Finally, the entire nerve is wrapped in a layer of connective tissue called the epineurium.
Nerves are categorized into three groups based on the direction that signals are conducted:
- Afferent nerves conduct signals from sensory neurons to the central nervous system, for example from the mechanoreceptors in skin.
- Efferent nerves conduct signals from the central nervous system along motor neurons to their target muscles and glands.
- Mixed nerves contain both afferent and efferent axons, and thus conduct both incoming sensory information and outgoing muscle commands in the same bundle.
Nerves can be categorized into two groups based on where they connect to the central nervous system:
- Spinal nerves innervate (distribute to/stimulate) much of the body, and connect through the spinal column to the spinal cord and thus to the central nervous system. They are given letter-number designations according to the vertebra through which they connect to the spinal column.
- Cranial nerves innervate parts of the head, and connect directly to the brain (especially to the brainstem). They are typically assigned Roman numerals from 1 to 12, although cranial nerve zero is sometimes included. In addition, cranial nerves have descriptive names.
Each nerve is covered externally by a dense sheath of connective tissue, the epineurium. Underlying this is a layer of flat cells, the perineurium, which forms a complete sleeve around a bundle of axons. Perineurial septae extend into the nerve and subdivide it into several bundles of fibres. Surrounding each such fibre is the endoneurium. This forms an unbroken tube from the surface of the spinal cord to the level where the axon synapses with its muscle fibres, or ends in sensory receptors. The endoneurium consists of an inner sleeve of material called the glycocalyx and an outer, delicate, meshwork of collagen fibres. Nerves are bundled along with blood vessels, since the neurons of a nerve have fairly high energy requirements.
Within the endoneurium, the individual nerve fibres are surrounded by a low protein liquid called endoneurial fluid. This acts in a similar way to the cerebrospinal fluid in the central nervous system and constitutes a blood-nerve barrier similar to the blood-brain barrier. Molecules are thereby prevented from crossing the blood into the endoneurial fluid. During the development of nerve edema from nerve irritation or (injury), the amount of endoneurial fluid may increase at the site of irritation. This increase in fluid can be visualized using magnetic resonance neurography, and thus MR neurography can identify nerve irritation and/or injury.
A nerve conveys information in the form of electrochemical impulses (known as nerve impulses or action potentials) carried by the individual neurons that make up the nerve. These impulses are extremely fast, with some myelinated neurons conducting at speeds up to 120 m/s. The impulses travel from one neuron to another by crossing a synapse, the message is converted from electrical to chemical and then back to electrical.
Nerves can be categorized into two groups based on function:
- Sensory nerves conduct sensory information from their receptors to the central nervous system, where the information is then processed. Thus they are synonymous with afferent nerves.
- Motor nerves conduct signals from the central nervous system to muscles. Thus they are synonymous with efferent nerves.
Cancer can spread by invading the spaces around nerves. This is particularly common in head and neck cancer, and prostate and colorectal cancer.
Nerves can be damaged by physical injury as well conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome and repetitive strain injury. Autoimmune diseases such as Guillain-Barré syndrome, neurodegenerative diseases, polyneuropathy, infection, neuritis, diabetes, or failure of the blood vessels surrounding the nerve all cause nerve damage, which can vary in severity.
Multiple sclerosis is a disease associated with extensive nerve damage. It occurs when the macrophages of an individual's own immune system damage the myelin sheaths that insulate the axon of the nerve.
A pinched nerve occurs when pressure is placed on a nerve, usually from swelling due to an injury, or pregnancy and can result in pain, weakness, numbness or paralysis. Symptoms may be felt in areas far from the actual site of damage, a phenomenon called referred pain. Referred pain can happen when the damage causes altered signalling to other areas.
Neurologists usually diagnose disorders of the nerves by a physical examination, including the testing of reflexes, walking and other directed movements, muscle weakness, proprioception, and the sense of touch. This initial exam can be followed with tests such as nerve conduction study, electromyography (EMG), and computed tomography (CT).
Growth and stimulation
A neuron is called identified if it has properties that distinguish it from every other neuron in the same animal—properties such as location, neurotransmitter, gene expression pattern, and connectivity—and if every individual organism belonging to the same species has exactly one neuron with the same set of properties. In vertebrate nervous systems, very few neurons are "identified" in this sense. Researchers believe humans have none—but in simpler nervous systems, some or all neurons may be thus unique.
In vertebrates, the best known identified neurons are the gigantic Mauthner cells of fish. Every fish has two Mauthner cells, located in the bottom part of the brainstem, one on the left side and one on the right. Each Mauthner cell has an axon that crosses over, innervating (stimulating) neurons at the same brain level and then travelling down through the spinal cord, making numerous connections as it goes. The synapses generated by a Mauthner cell are so powerful that a single action potential gives rise to a major behavioral response: within milliseconds the fish curves its body into a C-shape, then straightens, thereby propelling itself rapidly forward. Functionally this is a fast escape response, triggered most easily by a strong sound wave or pressure wave impinging on the lateral line organ of the fish. Mauthner cells are not the only identified neurons in fish—there are about 20 more types, including pairs of "Mauthner cell analogs" in each spinal segmental nucleus. Although a Mauthner cell is capable of bringing about an escape response all by itself, in the context of ordinary behavior other types of cells usually contribute to shaping the amplitude and direction of the response.
Mauthner cells have been described as command neurons. A command neuron is a special type of identified neuron, defined as a neuron that is capable of driving a specific behavior all by itself. Such neurons appear most commonly in the fast escape systems of various species—the squid giant axon and squid giant synapse, used for pioneering experiments in neurophysiology because of their enormous size, both participate in the fast escape circuit of the squid. The concept of a command neuron has, however, become controversial, because of studies showing that some neurons that initially appeared to fit the description were really only capable of evoking a response in a limited set of circumstances.
In organisms of radial symmetry nerve nets serve for the nervous system. There is no brain or centralised head region, and instead there are interconnected neurons spread out in nerve nets. These are found in Cnidaria, Ctenophora and Echinodermata.
- Connective tissue in the peripheral nervous system
- Dermatome (anatomy)
- List of nerves of the human body
- Nerve fiber
- Nerve injury
- Nervous system
- Peripheral nerve injury
- Peripheral nerve injury classification
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