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Central nervous system (CNS)

8-minute read

Key facts

  • The central nervous system (CNS) is made up of the brain and spinal cord.
  • The CNS is the body’s processing centre.
  • The brain controls most of the functions of the body, including awareness, movement, thinking, speech, and the 5 senses.
  • The spinal cord is an extension of the brain and carries messages to and from the brain to the rest of the body.

What is the central nervous system?

The central nervous system (CNS) is made up of the brain and spinal cord.

It is part of the nervous system. The other part is the peripheral nervous system, which is made up of nerves that connect the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body.

the central nervous system

What is the function of the central nervous system?

The central nervous system is the body’s processing centre.

The brain controls most of the functions of the body, including:

  • awareness
  • movement
  • thinking
  • speech
  • the 5 senses — seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting and smelling

The spinal cord is an extension of the brain. It carries messages between the brain and the rest of the body via a network of peripheral nerves.

What are the parts of the central nervous system?

The nervous system is made up of basic units called neurons. Neurons are also known as brain cells. Neurons are arranged in networks that carry electrical and chemical messages to and from the brain, to the rest of the body.

The brain is made up of grey matter and white matter:

  • Grey matter consists of nerve cell bodies and blood vessels.
  • White matter consists of axons, which are long cords that extend from the nerve cells. They are coated in myelin, a fatty substance that insulates the axons to help electrical messages travel faster down the axons.

The brain and spinal cord are protected from damage by:

  • cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) — a clear liquid that surrounds them
  • the meninges — 3 layers of membranes (thin, protective layers)
  • the hard bones of the skull and backbone

The brain

The brain is made up of different parts. These include the:

  • cerebrum
  • cerebellum
  • thalamus
  • hypothalamus
  • brainstem

The cerebrum is the largest part of the brain. It controls intelligence, memory, personality, emotion, speech, and ability to feel and move. It is divided into left and right hemispheres (halves), which are linked by a band of nerve fibres in the centre of the brain called the corpus callosum.

Each hemisphere is divided into 4 lobes, or sections, which are all connected.

  • The frontal lobes control movement, speech and some of the functions of the mind such as behaviour, mood, memory and organisation.
  • The temporal lobes play an important role in memory, hearing, speech and language.
  • The parietal lobes play an important role in sensation and in an understanding of numbers, awareness of the body and feeling of space.
  • The occipital lobes process visual information from the eyes.
The lobes, or sections of the human brain.

Deep inside the brain are the thalamus and the hypothalamus. The thalamus moves information to and from the lobes, and controls movements and memory. The hypothalamus controls appetite, thirst and body temperature. It also produces hormones that control the release of other hormones in the pituitary gland.

At the base of the brain is the brainstem. It is important for breathing, blood pressure and how the body reacts to danger.

The spinal cord

The spinal cord is a column of nerve tissue that extends from the brainstem through the centre of spine. It is made up of millions of nerve cells and sends messages in the form of electrical nerve signals to and from your brain to the rest of your body.

These nerve signals include:

  • motor signals, which instruct your muscles how to move
  • sensory signals, which deliver information from your senses throughout your body back to your brain

How does the central nervous system work?

The central nervous system works by sending and receiving messages to various parts of the body. The brain is constantly in contact with all parts of the body, sending instructions via the axons and receiving feedback from the senses. The axons work by carrying these messages as electrical currents or nerve impulses.

Outgoing messages are sent along pathways from the brain to the muscles of the body. These messages activate the muscles. The neurons that make up these pathways are called motor neurons.

Incoming messages are sent along pathways from the senses to the spinal cord and brain. The neurons that make up these pathways are called sensory neurons.

What medical conditions are related to the central nervous system?

There are many medical conditions that affect the central nervous system. These conditions can be divided into different categories:

How to keep your central nervous system healthy

Good nutrition plays an important role in shaping your brain health throughout your life. It’s important that everyone — from young children to older adults — ensures they maintain a healthy diet. Good nutrition helps prevent vascular (heart and blood vessel) disease, including the blood vessels that supply the brain and nervous system. Preventing nutrient deficiencies can also help maintain good cognitive and mental health.

Resources and support

For more information about the structure of the central nervous system and how it works, visit the Queensland Brain Institute website.

Read more on dementia in English and a range of community languages on the Dementia Australia website. You can also call the National Dementia hotline on 1800 100 500.

Do you prefer to read in languages other than English?

Read all about stroke in English and a range of community languages on the Stroke Foundation website. Read more on living well after stroke in easy English (aphasia friendly) and standard English. Call the StrokeLine for advice on stroke prevention, treatment and recovery on 1800 787 653.

You can also call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 at any time to speak to a registered nurse (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria) for more information and advice.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: October 2023


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