Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

Your nervous system controls much of what your body does.

Your nervous system controls much of what your body does.
beginning of content

Nervous system

5-minute read

What is the nervous system?

The nervous system is made up of the brain, spinal cord and nerves. It controls much of what you think and feel and what your body does. It allows you to do things like walk, speak, swallow, breathe and learn. It also controls how the body reacts in an emergency.

The nervous system is made up of:

The brain is made up of different parts. These include the cerebrum, the cerebellum, the thalamus, the hypothalamus and the brainstem.

The spinal cord carries motor and sensory signals between the brain and nerves. It also contains separate circuits for many reflexes.

Peripheral nerves carry messages between the brain and other parts of the body. Nerves have different kinds of pathways within them:

  • Motor pathways carry messages from the brain to the muscles so you can move.
  • Sensory pathways detect things such as light and sound and carry information about these to the brain.

The nervous system is mainly made up of cells called neurons. These are responsible for carrying messages to and from different parts of the body. Neurons are connected to each other, and to other cells, by synapses, which carry electrical signals, and neurotransmitters, which are the body’s chemical messengers.

What does the nervous system do?

The nervous system is responsible for:

  • intelligence, learning and memory: your thoughts and feelings
  • movement: how your body moves
  • basic body functions like the beating of your heart, breathing, digestion, sweating and shivering
  • the senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell

A part of the nervous system, called the autonomic nervous system, controls a lot of the body processes we don’t think about, like breathing, sweating or shivering. There are 2 parts to the autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system, which controls how you respond in an emergency (it makes your heart beat faster and causes you to release adrenaline), and the parasympathetic nervous system, which prepares the body for rest. They work together to manage how the body responds to our changing environment and needs. For example, your pupils will change size to allow the right amount of light into your eyes so that you can see properly.

What are the common diseases of the nervous system?

There are thousands of conditions that start in or affect the central nervous system, including:

What are the symptoms of nervous-system problems?

There are many different symptoms that could suggest a problem with the central nervous system. They include:

Other symptoms that might suggest a problem with the central nervous system include:

It is important to seek medical help if you have symptoms like these that do not go away on their own.

There are also many diseases that affect the peripheral nervous system. These disorders and common symptoms are described here.

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

Last reviewed: June 2021

Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Dementia - Brain Disorders A-Z - Brain Foundation Australia

The term ‘dementia’ is used to describe deteriorating intellectual function that can occur as a result of various neurological disorders.

Read more on Brain Foundation website

Living with CBS :: Fight Parkinson’s – Together we can

Corticobasal Syndrome (CBS) is a rare progressive neurological disorder resulting from degeneration in a specific part of the brain. The condition manifests due to a loss of nerve cells in the outer layer of the brain (the cortex) and the deep basal ganglia, and atrophy (shrinkage) of multiple areas of the brain. This Corticobasal Degeneration (CBD) progresses gradually and affects two of the core domains that make us human - movement and thinking. This has a dramatic impact on people’s lives, affecting their confidence and independence as symptoms of their condition get worse over time. Other parts of the brain are also affected, however it is the particular effect in these parts of the brain that distinguishes CBS from other conditions.

Read more on Fight Parkinson's website

What we’re doing about neurological conditions | Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care

Neurological conditions affect the nervous system. They can have a big impact on quality of life. Find out what we’re doing to help Australians living with conditions such as epilepsy, cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis.

Read more on Department of Health and Aged Care website

Lewy Body Disease | Dementia Australia

Lewy body disease  Lewy body disease is a term that incorporates both Parkinson’s disease and dementia with Lewy bodies, which share similarities in the ways by which they both damage the brain at the cellular level and in the symptoms a person may experience.

Read more on Dementia Australia website

Neurophysiology (brain and nerve) disorders information | myVMC

Discover information about neurological conditions such as hyperhidrosis, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, and learn about neurological investigations.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Restless Legs Syndrome - Brain Disorders A-Z - Brain Foundation

Restless legs syndrome is characterised by unpleasant sensations in the legs and needing to move one's legs, especially when trying to sleep.

Read more on Brain Foundation website

Parkinson's disease - Better Health Channel

People with Parkinson?s disease can help manage their symptoms through medication and support.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Alzheimer's disease -

Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia. Find out all you need to know, including what causes it and whether it can be prevented.

Read more on myDr website

Alzheimer's disease | Dementia Australia

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is a physical brain condition resulting in impaired memory, thinking and behaviour. It disrupts the brain’s neurons, affecting how they work and communicate with each other.

Read more on Dementia Australia website

Alzheimer’s Disease - Brain Foundation

Description Alzheimer’s Disease is a form of dementia — a neurodegenerative disease that damages the brain’s intellectual functions (memory, orientation, calculation, etc

Read more on Brain Foundation website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Victorian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.