Structure And Function Of Human Brain And Spinal Cord


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The brain is a complex organ made up of specialized nerve and supportive tissues. It’s surrounded by many bones that together form the skull. The part of the skull where the brain sits is called the cranium. The base, or lower part, of the brain is connected to the spinal cord. Together, the brain and spinal cord are known as the central nervous system (CNS). Many nerves send electrical signals to and from the brain and spinal cord.  

The brain is the body’s control centre. It constantly receives and interprets nerve signals from the body and sends new signals based on this information. Different parts of the brain control movement, speech, emotions, consciousness and internal body functions, such as heart rate, breathing and body temperature.  

The brain has 3 main parts: cerebrum, cerebellum and brain stem.


The cerebrum is the largest part of the brain. It is divided into 2 halves called the left and right cerebral hemispheres. The 2 hemispheres are connected by a bridge of nerve fibres called the corpus callosum.  The right half of the cerebrum (right hemisphere) controls the left side of the body. The left half of the cerebrum (left hemisphere) controls the right side of the body.  The cerebral cortex is the outer, folded part of the brain. It is also called the grey matter. The cerebral cortex is mostly made up of the cell bodies and dendrites of nerve cells (neurons). Cell bodies contain the nucleus and other main parts of the cell. Dendrites are the short branching fibres that receive signals from other nerve cells. The inner part of the cerebrum is called the white matter. It is mostly made up of the long fibres of a nerve cell (called axons) that send signals to and from the brain to the rest of the body. The fatty coating that surrounds axons (called myelin) gives this part of the brain a whitish appearance.  





The cerebellum is located under the cerebrum at the back of the brain. It is divided into 2 parts or hemispheres and also has grey and white matter.  The cerebellum is responsible for:  

  • movement
  • posture
  • balance
  • reflexes complex actions (walking, talking)
  • collecting sensory information from the body   

The brain stem is a bundle of nerve tissue at the base of the brain. It connects the cerebrum and cerebellum to the spinal cord.  The brain stem has 3 areas:  

  • midbrain (also called the mesencephalon)
  • pons
  • medulla oblongata

Corpus callosum

The corpus callosum is a bundle of nerve fibres that allows communication between the 2 cerebral hemispheres. It is the largest fibre bundle in the brain.    


The thalamus is a structure in the middle of the brain that has 2 lobes or sections. It acts as a relay station for almost all information that comes and goes between the brain and the rest of the nervous system in the body.


The hypothalamus is a small structure in the middle of the brain below the thalamus. It plays a part in controlling body temperature, hormone secretion, blood pressure, emotions, appetite and sleep patterns.    



Cranial nerves

There are 12 pairs of cranial nerves that perform specific functions in the head and neck, including giving us our sense of smell, sight (vision), hearing, taste, speech, feeling in the face and movement of the muscles in the face, eyes and tongue. One pair of nerves starts in specialized cells in the roof of the nose and another pair starts in the retina of the eye. The other 10 pairs start in the brain stem.

Structure and function of the spine

The spine is made up of 26 bones divided into 5 sections. These bones surround and protect the spinal cord. This includes 24 vertebrae (divided into cervical, thoracic and lumbar regions), the sacrum and the coccyx.  

Cervical region: These are 7 vertebrae at the top of the spine that run from the base of the skull to the lowest part of the neck.

Thoracic region: These are 12 vertebrae that run from the shoulders to the middle of the back.

Lumbar region: These are 5 vertebrae that run from the middle of the back to the hips.  Sacrum – This is a large section of fused vertebrae at the base of the spine.  

Coccyx (tail bone): This is a small, thin section of fused vertebrae at the end of the spine.    

Spinal cord

The spinal cord is a thick column of nerves surrounded by vertebrae that runs from the brain stem to the lumbar region of the spine. Like the brain, the spinal cord has both grey and white matter. The spinal cord sends information between the brain and most of the body through the spinal nerves.    

Spinal nerves

Pairs of spinal nerves exit the vertebrae along the length of the spinal cord. At the lumbar region, the spinal cord branches into a group of spinal nerves that exit the lumbar vertebrae and sacrum. The spinal nerves control body functions like movement, bladder and bowel control and breathing. The spinal nerves are numbered after nearby vertebrae.

Reflex action

When a receptor is stimulated, it sends a signal to the central nervous system, where the brain co-ordinates the response. But sometimes a very quick response is needed, one that does not need the involvement of the brain. This is a reflex action.  Reflex actions are rapid and happen without us thinking. For example, you would pull your hand away from a hot flame without thinking about it. The animation below allows you to step through each stage of the reflex arc.


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