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Nervous system

8-minute read

Key facts

  • The nervous system is made up of the brain, spinal cord and nerves.
  • The nervous system is responsible for intelligence, learning, memory, movement, the senses and basic body functions such as your heartbeat and breathing.
  • The basic building blocks of the nervous system are the nerve cells (neurons) which are responsible for carrying messages to and from different parts of the body.
  • The brain is in constant communication with all parts of the body, sending instructions and receiving input from the senses.

What is the nervous system?

The nervous system is made up of the brain, spinal cord and nerves.

It controls many aspects of what you think, how you feel and what your body does. It allows you to do things such as walk, speak, swallow, breathe and learn. It also controls how the body reacts in stressful situations. The nervous system interprets and responds to information gathered through the senses.

What is function of the nervous system?

The main function of the nervous system is to be the body's communication network. Its main job is to send and receive messages between you and the outside world, and within your own body.

The nervous system is responsible for:

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

What are the parts of the nervous system?

The nervous system is made up of:

  • the central nervous system (CNS), which consists of the brain and spinal cord
  • the peripheral nervous system (PNS), which consists of nerves that connect the CNS to the rest of the body

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

  • cerebrum
  • cerebellum
  • thalamus
  • hypothalamus
  • brainstem

The brain's cerebral cortex is the outermost layer of the brain that gives the brain its wrinkly appearance. The cerebral cortex is divided in half lengthways into two sides or hemispheres, the left hemisphere, and the right hemisphere. Each hemisphere specialises in different functions, but they share information and work together seamlessly.

Each brain hemisphere (parts of the cerebrum) has 4 different sections called lobes. These lobes are the frontal, parietal, temporal and occipital lobes. Each lobe carries out different brain functions.

Learn more about the structure of the central nervous system and how it works.

What are nerve cells?

The basic building blocks of the nervous system are the nerve cells, or neurons. The human brain has around 100 billion neurons. These cells are responsible for carrying messages to and from different parts of the body.

Neurons have a cell body which contain the cell's nucleus as well as special extension called dendrites and axons.

The synapse is the gap between the end of one neuron's axon and the tip of next neuron's dendrites. Messages travel from one neuron to the next across synapses.

A neuron and it's parts.

How does the nervous system work?

The brain is in constant communication with all parts of the body, sending instructions and receiving input from the senses.

Outgoing messages from the brain are sent along motor pathways, which carry messages from the brain to the muscles to tell them to move. The neurons that make up these motor pathways are called motor neurons.

Incoming messages from the body to the brain are sent along sensory pathways. The sensory pathways detect things such as light and sound and carry information about these to the brain. The neurons that make up these sensory pathways are called sensory neurons.

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

One part of the nervous system, called the autonomic nervous system, controls a lot of the body processes that function automatically, for example, 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 or when you are under stress (for example, it makes your heart beat faster and causes you to release adrenaline)
  • the parasympathetic nervous system, which prepares the body for rest

These parts work together to manage how the body responds to your changing environment and needs. For example, your pupils change size to allow the right amount of light into your eyes to allow effective vision.

What medical conditions are related to the nervous system?

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

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What are the symptoms of problems with the nervous system?

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

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

There are also many diseases that affect the peripheral nervous system. The peripheral nerves include the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord such as nerves of the face, arms, legs and torso. Read more on diseases of the peripheral nervous system.

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

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

Resources and support

Synapse has a lot of information about the anatomy and function of the nervous system

Read more on Motor Neuron Disease (MND), including causes, symptoms and treatment options.

Learn about peripheral neuropathy, including types, treatment, prognosis and where to get support. Peripheral neuropathy can also be a side effect of cancer treatment – read more on the cancer Council website.

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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