Module 9: The Somatic Nervous System

Lesson 4: Somatic Nervous System: Motor Responses

Hệ Thần Kinh Bản Thể: Đáp Ứng Vận Động

Nội dung bài học:
Mỗi bài học (lesson) bao gồm 4 phần chính: Thuật ngữ, Luyện Đọc, Luyện Nghe, và Bàn Luận.
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Dưới đây là danh sách những thuật ngữ Y khoa của module The Somatic Nervous System.
Khái quát được số lượng thuật ngữ sẽ xuất hiện trong bài đọc và nghe sẽ giúp bạn thoải mái tiêu thụ nội dung hơn. Sau khi hoàn thành nội dung đọc và nghe, bạn hãy quay lại đây và luyện tập (practice) để quen dần các thuật ngữ này. Đừng ép bản thân phải nhớ các thuật ngữ này vội vì bạn sẽ gặp và ôn lại danh sách này trong những bài học (lesson) khác của cùng một module.

Medical Terminology: The Somatic Nervous System

substance, usually from a plant source, that is chemically basic with respect to pH and will stimulate bitter receptors
amacrine cell
type of cell in the retina that connects to the bipolar cells near the outer synaptic layer and provides the basis for early image processing within the retina
in the ear, the structure at the base of a semicircular canal that contains the hair cells and cupula for transduction of rotational movement of the head
loss of the sense of smell; usually the result of physical disruption of the first cranial nerve
anterior corticospinal tract
division of the corticospinal pathway that travels through the ventral (anterior) column of the spinal cord and controls axial musculature through the medial motor neurons in the ventral (anterior) horn
aqueous humor
watery fluid that fills the anterior chamber containing the cornea, iris, ciliary body, and lens of the eye
ascending pathway
fiber structure that relays sensory information from the periphery through the spinal cord and brain stem to other structures of the brain
association area
region of cortex connected to a primary sensory cortical area that further processes the information to generate more complex sensory perceptions
sense of hearing
fleshy external structure of the ear
basilar membrane
in the ear, the floor of the cochlear duct on which the organ of Corti sits
Betz cells
output cells of the primary motor cortex that cause musculature to move through synapses on cranial and spinal motor neurons
binocular depth cues
indications of the distance of visual stimuli on the basis of slight differences in the images projected onto either retina
bipolar cell
cell type in the retina that connects the photoreceptors to the RGCs
Broca’s area
region of the frontal lobe associated with the motor commands necessary for speech production
molecule that activates nociceptors by interacting with a temperature-sensitive ion channel and is the basis for “hot” sensations in spicy food
cerebral peduncles
segments of the descending motor pathway that make up the white matter of the ventral midbrain
cervical enlargement
region of the ventral (anterior) horn of the spinal cord that has a larger population of motor neurons for the greater number of and finer control of muscles of the upper limb
sensory receptor cell that is sensitive to chemical stimuli, such as in taste, smell, or pain
chief sensory nucleus
component of the trigeminal nuclei that is found in the pons
highly vascular tissue in the wall of the eye that supplies the outer retina with blood
ciliary body
smooth muscle structure on the interior surface of the iris that controls the shape of the lens through the zonule fibers
circadian rhythm
internal perception of the daily cycle of light and dark based on retinal activity related to sunlight
auditory portion of the inner ear containing structures to transduce sound stimuli
cochlear duct
space within the auditory portion of the inner ear that contains the organ of Corti and is adjacent to the scala tympani and scala vestibuli on either side
cone photoreceptor
one of the two types of retinal receptor cell that is specialized for color vision through the use of three photopigments distributed through three separate populations of cells
word meaning “on the opposite side,” as in axons that cross the midline in a fiber tract
fibrous covering of the anterior region of the eye that is transparent so that light can pass through it
corneal reflex
protective response to stimulation of the cornea causing contraction of the orbicularis oculi muscle resulting in blinking of the eye
corticobulbar tract
connection between the cortex and the brain stem responsible for generating movement
corticospinal tract
connection between the cortex and the spinal cord responsible for generating movement
specialized structure within the base of a semicircular canal that bends the stereocilia of hair cells when the head rotates by way of the relative movement of the enclosed fluid
to cross the midline, as in fibers that project from one side of the body to the other
dorsal column system
ascending tract of the spinal cord associated with fine touch and proprioceptive sensations
dorsal stream
connections between cortical areas from the occipital to parietal lobes that are responsible for the perception of visual motion and guiding movement of the body in relation to that motion
encapsulated ending
configuration of a sensory receptor neuron with dendrites surrounded by specialized structures to aid in transduction of a particular type of sensation, such as the lamellated corpuscles in the deep dermis and subcutaneous tissue
sense of balance that includes sensations of position and movement of the head
executive functions
cognitive processes of the prefrontal cortex that lead to directing goal-directed behavior, which is a precursor to executing motor commands
external ear
structures on the lateral surface of the head, including the auricle and the ear canal back to the tympanic membrane
sensory receptor that is positioned to interpret stimuli from the external environment, such as photoreceptors in the eye or somatosensory receptors in the skin
extraocular muscle
one of six muscles originating out of the bones of the orbit and inserting into the surface of the eye which are responsible for moving the eye
extrapyramidal system
pathways between the brain and spinal cord that are separate from the corticospinal tract and are responsible for modulating the movements generated through that primary pathway
fasciculus cuneatus
lateral division of the dorsal column system composed of fibers from sensory neurons in the upper body
fasciculus gracilis
medial division of the dorsal column system composed of fibers from sensory neurons in the lower body
fibrous tunic
outer layer of the eye primarily composed of connective tissue known as the sclera and cornea
exact center of the retina at which visual stimuli are focused for maximal acuity, where the retina is thinnest, at which there is nothing but photoreceptors
free nerve ending
configuration of a sensory receptor neuron with dendrites in the connective tissue of the organ, such as in the dermis of the skin, that are most often sensitive to chemical, thermal, and mechanical stimuli
frontal eye fields
area of the prefrontal cortex responsible for moving the eyes to attend to visual stimuli
general sense
any sensory system that is distributed throughout the body and incorporated into organs of multiple other systems, such as the walls of the digestive organs or the skin
sense of taste
gustatory receptor cells
sensory cells in the taste bud that transduce the chemical stimuli of gustation
hair cells
mechanoreceptor cells found in the inner ear that transduce stimuli for the senses of hearing and balance
(also, anvil) ossicle of the middle ear that connects the malleus to the stapes
inferior colliculus
last structure in the auditory brainstem pathway that projects to the thalamus and superior colliculus
inferior oblique
extraocular muscle responsible for lateral rotation of the eye
inferior rectus
extraocular muscle responsible for looking down
inner ear
structure within the temporal bone that contains the sensory apparati of hearing and balance
inner segment
in the eye, the section of a photoreceptor that contains the nucleus and other major organelles for normal cellular functions
inner synaptic layer
layer in the retina where bipolar cells connect to RGCs
interaural intensity difference
cue used to aid sound localization in the horizontal plane that compares the relative loudness of sounds at the two ears, because the ear closer to the sound source will hear a slightly more intense sound
interaural time difference
cue used to help with sound localization in the horizontal plane that compares the relative time of arrival of sounds at the two ears, because the ear closer to the sound source will receive the stimulus microseconds before the other ear
internal capsule
segment of the descending motor pathway that passes between the caudate nucleus and the putamen
sensory receptor that is positioned to interpret stimuli from internal organs, such as stretch receptors in the wall of blood vessels
word meaning on the same side, as in axons that do not cross the midline in a fiber tract
colored portion of the anterior eye that surrounds the pupil
sense of body movement based on sensations in skeletal muscles, tendons, joints, and the skin
lacrimal duct
duct in the medial corner of the orbit that drains tears into the nasal cavity
lacrimal gland
gland lateral to the orbit that produces tears to wash across the surface of the eye
lateral corticospinal tract
division of the corticospinal pathway that travels through the lateral column of the spinal cord and controls appendicular musculature through the lateral motor neurons in the ventral (anterior) horn
lateral geniculate nucleus
thalamic target of the RGCs that projects to the visual cortex
lateral rectus
extraocular muscle responsible for abduction of the eye
component of the eye that focuses light on the retina
levator palpebrae superioris
muscle that causes elevation of the upper eyelid, controlled by fibers in the oculomotor nerve
lumbar enlargement
region of the ventral (anterior) horn of the spinal cord that has a larger population of motor neurons for the greater number of muscles of the lower limb
enlargement at the base of a semicircular canal at which transduction of equilibrium stimuli takes place within the ampulla
(also, hammer) ossicle that is directly attached to the tympanic membrane
receptor cell that transduces mechanical stimuli into an electrochemical signal
medial geniculate nucleus
thalamic target of the auditory brain stem that projects to the auditory cortex
medial lemniscus
fiber tract of the dorsal column system that extends from the nuclei gracilis and cuneatus to the thalamus, and decussates
medial rectus
extraocular muscle responsible for adduction of the eye
mesencephalic nucleus
component of the trigeminal nuclei that is found in the midbrain
middle ear
space within the temporal bone between the ear canal and bony labyrinth where the ossicles amplify sound waves from the tympanic membrane to the oval window
multimodal integration area
region of the cerebral cortex in which information from more than one sensory modality is processed to arrive at higher level cortical functions such as memory, learning, or cognition
neural tunic
layer of the eye that contains nervous tissue, namely the retina
receptor cell that senses pain stimuli
nucleus cuneatus
medullary nucleus at which first-order neurons of the dorsal column system synapse specifically from the upper body and arms
nucleus gracilis
medullary nucleus at which first-order neurons of the dorsal column system synapse specifically from the lower body and legs
odorant molecules
volatile chemicals that bind to receptor proteins in olfactory neurons to stimulate the sense of smell
sense of smell
olfactory bulb
central target of the first cranial nerve; located on the ventral surface of the frontal lobe in the cerebrum
olfactory epithelium
region of the nasal epithelium where olfactory neurons are located
olfactory sensory neuron
receptor cell of the olfactory system, sensitive to the chemical stimuli of smell, the axons of which compose the first cranial nerve
protein that contains the photosensitive cofactor retinal for phototransduction
optic chiasm
decussation point in the visual system at which medial retina fibers cross to the other side of the brain
optic disc
spot on the retina at which RGC axons leave the eye and blood vessels of the inner retina pass
optic nerve
second cranial nerve, which is responsible visual sensation
optic tract
name for the fiber structure containing axons from the retina posterior to the optic chiasm representing their CNS location
organ of Corti
structure in the cochlea in which hair cells transduce movements from sound waves into electrochemical signals
receptor cell that senses differences in the concentrations of bodily fluids on the basis of osmotic pressure
three small bones in the middle ear
layer of calcium carbonate crystals located on top of the otolithic membrane
otolithic membrane
gelatinous substance in the utricle and saccule of the inner ear that contains calcium carbonate crystals and into which the stereocilia of hair cells are embedded
outer segment
in the eye, the section of a photoreceptor that contains opsin molecules that transduce light stimuli
outer synaptic layer
layer in the retina at which photoreceptors connect to bipolar cells
oval window
membrane at the base of the cochlea where the stapes attaches, marking the beginning of the scala vestibuli
palpebral conjunctiva
membrane attached to the inner surface of the eyelids that covers the anterior surface of the cornea
for gustation, a bump-like projection on the surface of the tongue that contains taste buds
chemical change in the retinal molecule that alters the bonding so that it switches from the 11-cis-retinal isomer to the all-trans-retinal isomer
individual “packet” of light
receptor cell specialized to respond to light stimuli
premotor cortex
cortical area anterior to the primary motor cortex that is responsible for planning movements
primary sensory cortex
region of the cerebral cortex that initially receives sensory input from an ascending pathway from the thalamus and begins the processing that will result in conscious perception of that modality
sense of position and movement of the body
receptor cell that senses changes in the position and kinesthetic aspects of the body
open hole at the center of the iris that light passes through into the eye
pyramidal decussation
location at which corticospinal tract fibers cross the midline and segregate into the anterior and lateral divisions of the pathway
segment of the descending motor pathway that travels in the anterior position of the medulla
receptor cell
cell that transduces environmental stimuli into neural signals
red nucleus
midbrain nucleus that sends corrective commands to the spinal cord along the rubrospinal tract, based on disparity between an original command and the sensory feedback from movement
reticulospinal tract
extrapyramidal connections between the brain stem and spinal cord that modulate movement, contribute to posture, and regulate muscle tone
nervous tissue of the eye at which phototransduction takes place
cofactor in an opsin molecule that undergoes a biochemical change when struck by a photon (pronounced with a stress on the last syllable)
retinal ganglion cell (RGC)
neuron of the retina that projects along the second cranial nerve
photopigment molecule found in the rod photoreceptors
rod photoreceptor
one of the two types of retinal receptor cell that is specialized for low-light vision
round window
membrane that marks the end of the scala tympani
rubrospinal tract
descending motor control pathway, originating in the red nucleus, that mediates control of the limbs on the basis of cerebellar processing
structure of the inner ear responsible for transducing linear acceleration in the vertical plane
scala tympani
portion of the cochlea that extends from the apex to the round window
scala vestibuli
portion of the cochlea that extends from the oval window to the apex
white of the eye
semicircular canals
structures within the inner ear responsible for transducing rotational movement information
sensory homunculus
topographic representation of the body within the somatosensory cortex demonstrating the correspondence between neurons processing stimuli and sensitivity
sensory modality
a particular system for interpreting and perceiving environmental stimuli by the nervous system
solitary nucleus
medullar nucleus that receives taste information from the facial and glossopharyngeal nerves
general sense associated with modalities lumped together as touch
special sense
any sensory system associated with a specific organ structure, namely smell, taste, sight, hearing, and balance
spinal trigeminal nucleus
component of the trigeminal nuclei that is found in the medulla
spinothalamic tract
ascending tract of the spinal cord associated with pain and temperature sensations
spiral ganglion
location of neuronal cell bodies that transmit auditory information along the eighth cranial nerve
(also, stirrup) ossicle of the middle ear that is attached to the inner ear
array of apical membrane extensions in a hair cell that transduce movements when they are bent
stretch reflex
response to activation of the muscle spindle stretch receptor that causes contraction of the muscle to maintain a constant length
specific sense within a broader major sense such as sweet as a part of the sense of taste, or color as a part of vision
superior colliculus
structure in the midbrain that combines visual, auditory, and somatosensory input to coordinate spatial and topographic representations of the three sensory systems
superior oblique
extraocular muscle responsible for medial rotation of the eye
superior rectus
extraocular muscle responsible for looking up
supplemental motor area
cortical area anterior to the primary motor cortex that is responsible for planning movements
suprachiasmatic nucleus
hypothalamic target of the retina that helps to establish the circadian rhythm of the body on the basis of the presence or absence of daylight
taste buds
structures within a papilla on the tongue that contain gustatory receptor cells
tectorial membrane
component of the organ of Corti that lays over the hair cells, into which the stereocilia are embedded
tectospinal tract
extrapyramidal connections between the superior colliculus and spinal cord
sensory receptor specialized for temperature stimuli
relating to positional information
process of changing an environmental stimulus into the electrochemical signals of the nervous system
cartilaginous structure that acts like a pulley for the superior oblique muscle
tympanic membrane
ear drum
taste submodality for sensitivity to the concentration of amino acids; also called the savory sense
structure of the inner ear responsible for transducing linear acceleration in the horizontal plane
vascular tunic
middle layer of the eye primarily composed of connective tissue with a rich blood supply
ventral posterior nucleus
nucleus in the thalamus that is the target of gustatory sensations and projects to the cerebral cortex
ventral stream
connections between cortical areas from the occipital lobe to the temporal lobe that are responsible for identification of visual stimuli
vestibular ganglion
location of neuronal cell bodies that transmit equilibrium information along the eighth cranial nerve
vestibular nuclei
targets of the vestibular component of the eighth cranial nerve
in the ear, the portion of the inner ear responsible for the sense of equilibrium
vestibulo-ocular reflex (VOR)
reflex based on connections between the vestibular system and the cranial nerves of eye movements that ensures images are stabilized on the retina as the head and body move
vestibulospinal tract
extrapyramidal connections between the vestibular nuclei in the brain stem and spinal cord that modulate movement and contribute to balance on the basis of the sense of equilibrium
visceral sense
sense associated with the internal organs
special sense of sight based on transduction of light stimuli
visual acuity
property of vision related to the sharpness of focus, which varies in relation to retinal position
vitreous humor
viscous fluid that fills the posterior chamber of the eye
working memory
function of the prefrontal cortex to maintain a representation of information that is not in the immediate environment
zonule fibers
fibrous connections between the ciliary body and the lens
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Dưới đây là các bài văn nằm ở bên trái. Ở bên phải là các bài luyện tập (practice) để đánh giá khả năng đọc hiểu của bạn. Sẽ khó khăn trong thời gian đầu nếu vốn từ vựng của bạn còn hạn chế, đặc biệt là từ vựng Y khoa. Hãy kiên nhẫn và đọc nhiều nhất có kể, lượng kiến thức tích tụ dần sẽ giúp bạn đọc thoải mái hơn.
The defining characteristic of the somatic nervous system is that it controls skeletal muscles. Somatic senses inform the nervous system about the external environment, but the response to that is through voluntary muscle movement. The term “voluntary” suggests that there is a conscious decision to make a movement. However, some aspects of the somatic system use voluntary muscles without conscious control. One example is the ability of our breathing to switch to unconscious control while we are focused on another task. However, the muscles that are responsible for the basic process of breathing are also utilized for speech, which is entirely voluntary.
Let us start with sensory stimuli that have been registered through receptor cells and the information relayed to the CNS along ascending pathways. In the cerebral cortex, the initial processing of sensory perception progresses to associative processing and then integration in multimodal areas of cortex. These levels of processing can lead to the incorporation of sensory perceptions into memory, but more importantly, they lead to a response. The completion of cortical processing through the primary, associative, and integrative sensory areas initiates a similar progression of motor processing, usually in different cortical areas.

Whereas the sensory cortical areas are located in the occipital, temporal, and parietal lobes, motor functions are largely controlled by the frontal lobe (See Figure 1). The most anterior regions of the frontal lobe—the prefrontal areas—are important for executive functions, which are those cognitive functions that lead to goal-directed behaviors. These higher cognitive processes include working memory, which has been called a “mental scratch pad,” that can help organize and represent information that is not in the immediate environment. The prefrontal lobe is responsible for aspects of attention, such as inhibiting distracting thoughts and actions so that a person can focus on a goal and direct behavior toward achieving that goal.

The functions of the prefrontal cortex are integral to the personality of an individual, because it is largely responsible for what a person intends to do and how they accomplish those plans. A famous case of damage to the prefrontal cortex is that of Phineas Gage, dating back to 1848. He was a railroad worker who had a metal spike impale his prefrontal cortex (Figure 2). He survived the accident, but according to second-hand accounts, his personality changed drastically. Friends described him as no longer acting like himself. Whereas he was a hardworking, amiable man before the accident, he turned into an irritable, temperamental, and lazy man after the accident. Many of the accounts of his change may have been inflated in the retelling, and some behavior was likely attributable to alcohol used as a pain medication. However, the accounts suggest that some aspects of his personality did change. Also, there is new evidence that though his life changed dramatically, he was able to become a functioning stagecoach driver, suggesting that the brain has the ability to recover even from major trauma such as this.

A. Secondary Motor Cortices

In generating motor responses, the executive functions of the prefrontal cortex will need to initiate actual movements. One way to define the prefrontal area is any region of the frontal lobe that does not elicit movement when electrically stimulated. These are primarily in the anterior part of the frontal lobe. The regions of the frontal lobe that remain are the regions of the cortex that produce movement. The prefrontal areas project into the secondary motor cortices, which include the premotor cortex and the supplemental motor area.

Two important regions that assist in planning and coordinating movements are located adjacent to the primary motor cortex. The premotor cortex is more lateral, whereas the supplemental motor area is more medial and superior. The premotor area aids in controlling movements of the core muscles to maintain posture during movement, whereas the supplemental motor area is hypothesized to be responsible for planning and coordinating movement. The supplemental motor area also manages sequential movements that are based on prior experience (that is, learned movements). Neurons in these areas are most active leading up to the initiation of movement. For example, these areas might prepare the body for the movements necessary to drive a car in anticipation of a traffic light changing.

Adjacent to these two regions are two specialized motor planning centers. The frontal eye fields are responsible for moving the eyes in response to visual stimuli. There are direct connections between the frontal eye fields and the superior colliculus. Also, anterior to the premotor cortex and primary motor cortex is Broca’s area. This area is responsible for controlling movements of the structures of speech production. The area is named after a French surgeon and anatomist who studied patients who could not produce speech. They did not have impairments to understanding speech, only to producing speech sounds, suggesting a damaged or underdeveloped Broca’s area.

B. Primary Motor Cortex

The primary motor cortex is located in the precentral gyrus of the frontal lobe. A neurosurgeon, Walter Penfield, described much of the basic understanding of the primary motor cortex by electrically stimulating the surface of the cerebrum. Penfield would probe the surface of the cortex while the patient was only under local anesthesia so that he could observe responses to the stimulation. This led to the belief that the precentral gyrus directly stimulated muscle movement. We now know that the primary motor cortex receives input from several areas that aid in planning movement, and its principal output stimulates spinal cord neurons to stimulate skeletal muscle contraction.

The primary motor cortex is arranged in a similar fashion to the primary somatosensory cortex, in that it has a topographical map of the body, creating a motor homunculus (see Figure 3). The neurons responsible for musculature in the feet and lower legs are in the medial wall of the precentral gyrus, with the thighs, trunk, and shoulder at the crest of the longitudinal fissure. The hand and face are in the lateral face of the gyrus. Also, the relative space allotted for the different regions is exaggerated in muscles that have greater innervation. The greatest amount of cortical space is given to muscles that perform fine, agile movements, such as the muscles of the fingers and the lower face. The “power muscles” that perform coarser movements, such as the buttock and back muscles, occupy much less space on the motor cortex.
The motor output from the cortex descends into the brain stem and to the spinal cord to control the musculature through motor neurons. Neurons located in the primary motor cortex, named Betz cells, are large cortical neurons that synapse with lower motor neurons in the brain stem or in the spinal cord. The two descending pathways travelled by the axons of Betz cells are the corticobulbar tract and the corticospinal tract, respectively. Both tracts are named for their origin in the cortex and their targets—either the brain stem (the term “bulbar” refers to the brain stem as the bulb, or enlargement, at the top of the spinal cord) or the spinal cord.

These two descending pathways are responsible for the conscious or voluntary movements of skeletal muscles. Any motor command from the primary motor cortex is sent down the axons of the Betz cells to activate lower motor neurons in either the cranial motor nuclei or in the ventral horn of the spinal cord. The axons of the corticobulbar tract are ipsilateral, meaning they project from the cortex to the motor nucleus on the same side of the nervous system. Conversely, the axons of the corticospinal tract are largely contralateral, meaning that they cross the midline of the brain stem or spinal cord and synapse on the opposite side of the body. Therefore, the right motor cortex of the cerebrum controls muscles on the left side of the body, and vice versa.

The corticospinal tract descends from the cortex through the deep white matter of the cerebrum. It then passes between the caudate nucleus and putamen of the basal nuclei as a bundle called the internal capsule. The tract then passes through the midbrain as the cerebral peduncles, after which it burrows through the pons. Upon entering the medulla, the tracts make up the large white matter tract referred to as the pyramids (Figure 4). The defining landmark of the medullary-spinal border is the pyramidal decussation, which is where most of the fibers in the corticospinal tract cross over to the opposite side of the brain. At this point, the tract separates into two parts, which have control over different domains of the musculature.

A. Appendicular Control

The lateral corticospinal tract is composed of the fibers that cross the midline at the pyramidal decussation (see Figure 4). The axons cross over from the anterior position of the pyramids in the medulla to the lateral column of the spinal cord. These axons are responsible for controlling appendicular muscles.

This influence over the appendicular muscles means that the lateral corticospinal tract is responsible for moving the muscles of the arms and legs. The ventral horn in both the lower cervical spinal cord and the lumbar spinal cord both have wider ventral horns, representing the greater number of muscles controlled by these motor neurons. The cervical enlargement is particularly large because there is greater control over the fine musculature of the upper limbs, particularly of the fingers. The lumbar enlargement is not as significant in appearance because there is less fine motor control of the lower limbs.

B. Axial Control

The anterior corticospinal tract is responsible for controlling the muscles of the body trunk (see Figure 4). These axons do not decussate in the medulla. Instead, they remain in an anterior position as they descend the brain stem and enter the spinal cord. These axons then travel to the spinal cord level at which they synapse with a lower motor neuron. Upon reaching the appropriate level, the axons decussate, entering the ventral horn on the opposite side of the spinal cord from which they entered. In the ventral horn, these axons synapse with their corresponding lower motor neurons. The lower motor neurons are located in the medial regions of the ventral horn, because they control the axial muscles of the trunk.

Because movements of the body trunk involve both sides of the body, the anterior corticospinal tract is not entirely contralateral. Some collateral branches of the tract will project into the ipsilateral ventral horn to control synergistic muscles on that side of the body, or to inhibit antagonistic muscles through interneurons within the ventral horn. Through the influence of both sides of the body, the anterior corticospinal tract can coordinate postural muscles in broad movements of the body. These coordinating axons in the anterior corticospinal tract are often considered bilateral, as they are both ipsilateral and contralateral.
Other descending connections between the brain and the spinal cord are called the extrapyramidal system. The name comes from the fact that this system is outside the corticospinal pathway, which includes the pyramids in the medulla. A few pathways originating from the brain stem contribute to this system.

The tectospinal tract projects from the midbrain to the spinal cord and is important for postural movements that are driven by the superior colliculus. The name of the tract comes from an alternate name for the superior colliculus, which is the tectum. The reticulospinal tract connects the reticular system, a diffuse region of gray matter in the brain stem, with the spinal cord. This tract influences trunk and proximal limb muscles related to posture and locomotion. The reticulospinal tract also contributes to muscle tone and influences autonomic functions. The vestibulospinal tract connects the brain stem nuclei of the vestibular system with the spinal cord. This allows posture, movement, and balance to be modulated on the basis of equilibrium information provided by the vestibular system.

The pathways of the extrapyramidal system are influenced by subcortical structures. For example, connections between the secondary motor cortices and the extrapyramidal system modulate spine and cranium movements. The basal nuclei, which are important for regulating movement initiated by the CNS, influence the extrapyramidal system as well as its thalamic feedback to the motor cortex.

The conscious movement of our muscles is more complicated than simply sending a single command from the precentral gyrus down to the proper motor neurons. During the movement of any body part, our muscles relay information back to the brain, and the brain is constantly sending “revised” instructions back to the muscles. The cerebellum is important in contributing to the motor system because it compares cerebral motor commands with proprioceptive feedback. The corticospinal fibers that project to the ventral horn of the spinal cord have branches that also synapse in the pons, which project to the cerebellum. Also, the proprioceptive sensations of the dorsal column system have a collateral projection to the medulla that projects to the cerebellum. These two streams of information are compared in the cerebellar cortex. Conflicts between the motor commands sent by the cerebrum and body position information provided by the proprioceptors cause the cerebellum to stimulate the red nucleus of the midbrain. The red nucleus then sends corrective commands to the spinal cord along the rubrospinal tract. The name of this tract comes from the word for red that is seen in the English word “ruby.”

A good example of how the cerebellum corrects cerebral motor commands can be illustrated by walking in water. An original motor command from the cerebrum to walk will result in a highly coordinated set of learned movements. However, in water, the body cannot actually perform a typical walking movement as instructed. The cerebellum can alter the motor command, stimulating the leg muscles to take larger steps to overcome the water resistance. The cerebellum can make the necessary changes through the rubrospinal tract. Modulating the basic command to walk also relies on spinal reflexes, but the cerebellum is responsible for calculating the appropriate response. When the cerebellum does not work properly, coordination and balance are severely affected. The most dramatic example of this is during the overconsumption of alcohol. Alcohol inhibits the ability of the cerebellum to interpret proprioceptive feedback, making it more difficult to coordinate body movements, such as walking a straight line, or guide the movement of the hand to touch the tip of the nose.
The somatic nervous system provides output strictly to skeletal muscles. The lower motor neurons, which are responsible for the contraction of these muscles, are found in the ventral horn of the spinal cord. These large, multipolar neurons have a corona of dendrites surrounding the cell body and an axon that extends out of the ventral horn. This axon travels through the ventral nerve root to join the emerging spinal nerve. The axon is relatively long because it needs to reach muscles in the periphery of the body. The diameters of cell bodies may be on the order of hundreds of micrometers to support the long axon; some axons are a meter in length, such as the lumbar motor neurons that innervate muscles in the first digits of the feet.

The axons will also branch to innervate multiple muscle fibers. Together, the motor neuron and all the muscle fibers that it controls make up a motor unit. Motor units vary in size. Some may contain up to 1000 muscle fibers, such as in the quadriceps, or they may only have 10 fibers, such as in an extraocular muscle. The number of muscle fibers that are part of a motor unit corresponds to the precision of control of that muscle. Also, muscles that have finer motor control have more motor units connecting to them, and this requires a larger topographical field in the primary motor cortex.

Motor neuron axons connect to muscle fibers at a neuromuscular junction. This is a specialized synaptic structure at which multiple axon terminals synapse with the muscle fiber sarcolemma. The synaptic end bulbs of the motor neurons secrete acetylcholine, which binds to receptors on the sarcolemma. The binding of acetylcholine opens ligand-gated ion channels, increasing the movement of cations across the sarcolemma. This depolarizes the sarcolemma, initiating muscle contraction. Whereas other synapses result in graded potentials that must reach a threshold in the postsynaptic target, activity at the neuromuscular junction reliably leads to muscle fiber contraction with every nerve impulse received from a motor neuron. However, the strength of contraction and the number of fibers that contract can be affected by the frequency of the motor neuron impulses.
Reflexes stand out as an example of the basic components of the somatic nervous system. Simple somatic reflexes do not include the higher centers discussed for conscious or voluntary aspects of movement. Reflexes can be spinal or cranial, depending on the nerves and central components that are involved. The example described at the beginning of the chapter involved heat and pain sensations from a hot stove causing withdrawal of the arm through a connection in the spinal cord that leads to contraction of the biceps brachii. The description of this withdrawal reflex was simplified, for the sake of the introduction, to emphasize the parts of the somatic nervous system. But to consider reflexes fully, more attention needs to be given to this example.

As you withdraw your hand from the stove, you do not want to slow that reflex down. As the biceps brachii contracts, the antagonistic triceps brachii needs to relax. Because the neuromuscular junction is strictly excitatory, the biceps will contract when the motor nerve is active. Skeletal muscles do not actively relax. Instead the motor neuron needs to “quiet down,” or be inhibited. In the hot-stove withdrawal reflex, this occurs through an interneuron in the spinal cord. The interneuron’s cell body is located in the dorsal horn of the spinal cord. The interneuron receives a synapse from the axon of the sensory neuron that detects that the hand is being burned. In response to this stimulation from the sensory neuron, the interneuron then inhibits the motor neuron that controls the triceps brachii. This is done by releasing a neurotransmitter or other signal that hyperpolarizes the motor neuron connected to the triceps brachii, making it less likely to initiate an action potential. With this motor neuron being inhibited, the triceps brachii relaxes. Without the antagonistic contraction, withdrawal from the hot stove is faster and keeps further tissue damage from occurring.

Another example of a withdrawal reflex occurs when you step on a painful stimulus, like a tack or a sharp rock. The nociceptors that are activated by the painful stimulus activate the motor neurons responsible for contraction of the tibialis anterior muscle. This causes dorsiflexion of the foot. An inhibitory interneuron, activated by a collateral branch of the nociceptor fiber, will inhibit the motor neurons of the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles to cancel plantar flexion. An important difference in this reflex is that plantar flexion is most likely in progress as the foot is pressing down onto the tack. Contraction of the tibialis anterior is not the most important aspect of the reflex, as continuation of plantar flexion will result in further damage from stepping onto the tack.

Another type of reflex is a stretch reflex. In this reflex, when a skeletal muscle is stretched, a muscle spindle receptor is activated. The axon from this receptor structure will cause direct contraction of the muscle. A collateral of the muscle spindle fiber will also inhibit the motor neuron of the antagonist muscles. The reflex helps to maintain muscles at a constant length. A common example of this reflex is the knee jerk that is elicited by a rubber hammer struck against the patellar ligament in a physical exam.

A specialized reflex to protect the surface of the eye is the corneal reflex, or the eye blink reflex. When the cornea is stimulated by a tactile stimulus, or even by bright light in a related reflex, blinking is initiated. The sensory component travels through the trigeminal nerve, which carries somatosensory information from the face, or through the optic nerve, if the stimulus is bright light. The motor response travels through the facial nerve and innervates the orbicularis oculi bilaterally. This reflex is commonly tested during a physical exam using an air puff or a gentle touch of a cotton-tipped applicator.

OpenStax. (2022). Anatomy and Physiology 2e. Rice University. Retrieved June 15, 2023. ISBN-13: 978-1-711494-06-7 (Hardcover) ISBN-13: 978-1-711494-05-0 (Paperback) ISBN-13: 978-1-951693-42-8 (Digital). License: Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0). Access for free at

The cerebral cortex is divided into four lobes. Extensive folding increases the surface area available for cerebral functions.

The victim of an accident while working on a railroad in 1848, Phineas Gage had a large iron rod impaled through the prefrontal cortex of his frontal lobe. After the accident, his personality appeared to change, but he eventually learned to cope with the trauma and lived as a coach driver even after such a traumatic event. (credit b: John M. Harlow, MD)

A cartoon representation of the sensory homunculus arranged adjacent to the cortical region in which the processing takes place.

The major descending tract that controls skeletal muscle movements is the corticospinal tract. It is composed of two neurons, the upper motor neuron and the lower motor neuron. The upper motor neuron has its cell body in the primary motor cortex of the frontal lobe and synapses on the lower motor neuron, which is in the ventral horn of the spinal cord and projects to the skeletal muscle in the periphery.

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  1. The motor components of the somatic nervous system begin with the frontal lobe of the brain, where the prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher functions such as working memory.
  2. The integrative and associate functions of the prefrontal lobe feed into the secondary motor areas, which help plan movements.
  3. The premotor cortex and supplemental motor area then feed into the primary motor cortex that initiates movements.
  4. Large Betz cells project through the corticobulbar and corticospinal tracts to synapse on lower motor neurons in the brain stem and ventral horn of the spinal cord, respectively.
  5. These connections are responsible for generating movements of skeletal muscles.
  6. The extrapyramidal system includes projections from the brain stem and higher centers that influence movement, mostly to maintain balance and posture, as well as to maintain muscle tone.
  7. The superior colliculus and red nucleus in the midbrain, the vestibular nuclei in the medulla, and the reticular formation throughout the brain stem each have tracts projecting to the spinal cord in this system.
  8. Descending input from the secondary motor cortices, basal nuclei, and cerebellum connect to the origins of these tracts in the brain stem.
  9. All of these motor pathways project to the spinal cord to synapse with motor neurons in the ventral horn of the spinal cord.
  10. These lower motor neurons are the cells that connect to skeletal muscle and cause contractions.
  11. These neurons project through the spinal nerves to connect to the muscles at neuromuscular junctions.
  12. One motor neuron connects to multiple muscle fibers within a target muscle.
  13. The number of fibers that are innervated by a single motor neuron varies on the basis of the precision necessary for that muscle and the amount of force necessary for that motor unit.
  14. The quadriceps, for example, have many fibers controlled by single motor neurons for powerful contractions that do not need to be precise.
  15. The extraocular muscles have only a small number of fibers controlled by each motor neuron because moving the eyes does not require much force, but needs to be very precise.
  16. Reflexes are the simplest circuits within the somatic nervous system.
  17. A withdrawal reflex from a painful stimulus only requires the sensory fiber that enters the spinal cord and the motor neuron that projects to a muscle.
  18. Antagonist and postural muscles can be coordinated with the withdrawal, making the connections more complex.
  19. The simple, single neuronal connection is the basis of somatic reflexes.
  20. The corneal reflex is contraction of the orbicularis oculi muscle to blink the eyelid when something touches the surface of the eye.
  21. Stretch reflexes maintain a constant length of muscles by causing a contraction of a muscle to compensate for a stretch that can be sensed by a specialized receptor called a muscle spindle.
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