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Good day everyone, Today we are going to discuss fully on the spinal cord;

Learning outcomes

After studying this section, you should be able to:

  • describe the gross structure of the spinal cord
  • state the functions of the sensory (afferent) and motor (efferent) nerve tracts in the spinal cord
  • explain the events of a simple reflex arc.

The spinal cord is the elongated, almost cylindrical part of the central nervous system, which is suspended in the vertebral canal surrounded by the meninges and cerebrospinal fluid. The spinal cord is continuous above with the medulla oblongata and extends from the upper border of the atlas (first cervical vertebra) to the lower border of the 1st lumbar vertebra. It is approximately 45 cm long in adult males, and is about the thickness of the little finger. A specimen of cerebro- spinal fluid can be taken using a procedure called lumbar puncture.

Diagram of the spinal cord
Diagram of the spinal cord

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Except for the cranial nerves, the spinal cord is the nervous tissue link between the brain and the rest of the body. Nerves conveying impulses from the brain to the various organs and tissues descend through the spinal cord. At the appropriate level they leave the cord and pass to the structure they supply. Similarly, sensory nerves from organs and tissues enter and pass upwards in the spinal cord to the brain.

Some activities of the spinal cord are independent of the brain and are controlled at the level of the spinal cord by spinal reflexes. To facilitate these, there are extensive neurone connections between sensory and motor neurones at the same or different levels in the cord.

The spinal cord is incompletely divided into two equal parts, anteriorly by a short, shallow median fissure and posteriorly by a deep narrow septum, the posterior median septum.

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A cross-section of the spinal cord shows that it is composed of grey matter in the centre surrounded by white matter supported by neuroglia.

Grey matter

The arrangement of grey matter in the spinal cord resembles the shape of the letter H, having two posterior, two anterior and two lateral columns. The area of grey matter lying transversely is the transverse commissure and it is pierced by the central canal, an extension from the fourth ventricle, containing cerebrospinal fluid. The nerve cell bodies may belong to:

  • sensory neurones, which receive impulses from the periphery of the body
  • lower motor neurones, which transmit impulses to the skeletal muscles
  • connector neurones, also known as interneurones linking sensory and motor neurones, at the same or different levels, which form spinal reflex arcs.

At each point where nerve impulses are transmitted from one neurone to another, there is a synapse.

Posterior columns of grey matter

These are composed of cell bodies that are stimulated by sensory impulses from the periphery of the body. The nerve fibres of these cells contribute to the white matter of the cord and transmit the sensory impulses upwards to the brain.

Anterior columns of grey matter

These are composed of the cell bodies of the lower motor neurones that are stimulated by the upper motor neu- rones or the connector neurones linking the anterior and posterior columns to form reflex arcs. The posterior root (spinal) ganglia are formed by the cell bodies of the sensory nerves.

White matter

The white matter of the spinal cord is arranged in three columns or tracts; anterior, posterior and lateral. These tracts are formed by sensory nerve fibres ascending to the brain, motor nerve fibres descending from the bro fibres of connector neurones.

Sensory nerve tracts in the spinal cord

Neurones that transmit impulses towards the called sensory (afferent, ascending). There are sources of sensation transmitted to the brain the spinal cord.

  1. The skin. Sensory receptors (nerve endings) in the skin are stimulated by pain, heat, cold and touch, including pressure. The nerve impulses generated are conducted by three neurones to the sensory area in the opposite hemisphere of the cerebrum where the sensation and its location are perceived. Crossing to the other side, or decussation, occurs either at the level of entry into the cord or in the medulla.
  2. The tendons, muscles and joints. Sensory receptors are specialised nerve endings in these structures, called proprioceptors, and they are stimulated by stretch. Together with impulses from the eyes and the ears, they are associated with the maintenance of balance and posture, and with perception of the position of the body in space.

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