Issue 77 / September - October 2010
It's Me Peter, Your Nervous System
Finally, I have come to say goodbye to you. As you probably know, there is a saying â€śLeave the best till last.â€ť I am the greatest of all the organs and systems that have described themselves to you so far. I am an integrative system that forms a chain between every organ in your body. Just as your veins are spread out to carry nutrients and oxygen to every part of your body, I also embrace your entire system like a network, without leaving the tiniest space; I am informed of everything that goes on inside your body. Even if a tiny insect settles on your arm, you sense it immediately. I make you aware of a tiny drop of sweat on your body. I induce pain in suitable measures to inform you of any illnesses in your inner organs. In fact, I not only inform you, I also warn you to seek help.
However, it is hard for me to describe myself. When you hear the words â€śnervous system,â€ť what comes to mind is a cluster of cells called neurons. But this is a great mass of cells, and we should always remember that we are referring to the most complex matter in all of creation. The very important main nervous systems, which are very close to one another, are the huge masses positioned beneath the skull, the extensions of my system and secondary nervous system; this latter is spread out through various regions of the body. It would take up too much of your time to describe each region and branch of my system individually to you each month, but in this way I could prove what a perfect and incredible duty each of them performs within your body. However, I will try to explain the subject briefly to avoid boring you. Nevertheless, please forgive me if I ramble on too much; we are describing the most excellent organ created by God so it is inevitable that there will be some complicated matters that need clarification.
Instead of allowing each of my sections to describe themselves to you individually, I will speak on their behalf as the â€śbrain.â€ť It may be easier for you to understand the system if we divide it into two. One of them is me and the nervous system which I lead; we can briefly describe this as the thalamus, hypothalamus, cerebellum, the medulla, and the spine. The other part is the peripheral nervous system, which emerges from the central nervous system and is distributed, rather like fiber optic telephone cables, throughout the entire body. In addition to me, the brain, and my two large cerebral hemispheres, there is another smaller section, which is known as the brain stem. The brain and its cerebral hemispheres and the sections of the brain stem which are protected beneath the skull (the cerebellum, medulla, thalamus, and hypothalamus) are very important. The spinal cord, which is also a part of the central nervous system, however is not in the skull, but positioned within the vertebrae that constitute the spine. Due to its connection with the central nervous system, any damage to the spinal cord can endanger life.
Although damage to regions of the body where the nerves are distributed from the central nervous system may cause paralysis, or functional disorder for the specific organ, such an incident is not life threatening.
If you recall, when the heart and circulation system described themselves they boasted â€“ indeed the veins also seemed to brag a bit when they stated that they measured 75,000 miles (long enough to go around the world almost three times). But the nerves are approximately 477,000 miles, long enough to stretch from the earth to the moon, and back againâ€¦ the nerves which are distributed throughout the various parts of your body measure 250,000 miles, and the total length of the central nervous system is 228,000 miles. Almost 200,000 signals pass through just one cell at a time, which means that every moment thousands of signals pass through millions of my cells all throughout your body, and flow from the central nervous system to the whole body and then back to the central nervous system. There are about 30 billion cells in my system. 10 billion of these cells are in the cortex, 10 billion in the cerebellum, and the remainder forms the structure of the nerves and other sections. As a comparison, a flyâ€™s brain contains 100 thousand cells, and a ratâ€™s brain has 10 million cells. The total number of connections and contact points (synapses) that my 30 billion cells use to send and receive signals is 100 trillion. The number of combinations that these connections can establish to send signals to one another is greater than the number of atoms in the universe. At the beginning of a thinking process, the number of cells activated is between 10 and 100 million, and according to the depth and intensity of the activity, these figures can increase to astounding numbers. Every second 4 billion signals are exchanged between the left and right hemispheres. When you were an embryo, just a few weeks old, I consisted of 92% water. When you were first born, the ratio of water was 90%. And when you were fully developed, the water ratio remains at 77%. Peter! Can you imagine, a heap of mass consisting of 77% water, the remainder made up of various element. Our Lord, the bearer of eternal power places me in you, in the head of the most honorable creation, and with me you form civilizations; you invent and discover. And even more important, with my mediation you have the ability to contemplate and reach your Creator. What we are learning about here is how with me you are able to recognize the wisdom of the entire universe. The electric signals of the various sense organs, such as the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin, all of which have previously described themselves, are transmitted by the receptive cells on various wavelengths; these are then conveyed to you in the form of sight, noise, smell and taste. In fact I am inducing you to write these words at this very moment. The evaluation of everything you do passes through me, but you are not even aware of it. When you walk, eat, talk, speak or sleep, the information I receive from every part of your body is reviewed and responded to in a suitable manner. Dear Peter! Could a single nucleus of a single one of my cells possibly position itself alone?
The Lord has created me so magnificently that you are still only aware of a very few of my mysteries. Each of the sections that I mentioned above has a distinct and important vital function. On their behalf, I will briefly explain their duties: The cerebellum is the nerve center from which the harmony of balance and muscle movement is controlled. As this section of me has no sense of perception, it is impossible to voluntarily change the functions of this region. The pyramid shaped medulla oblongata, which connects the spinal cord to the midbrain and the pons; the latter constitutes the other end of the brainstem through a hole in the back of the skull in the form of the spinal cord and enters into the vertebral column. Here, there are many nerve centers which regulate autonomic nervous system activity, such as the heart rate, breathing, and digestion process. This is also the center from which the reflexes are controlled, the bodyâ€™s inner environment is regulated, and this center, working with the cerebellum also controls movement and coordinates signals received from the nerves of inner organs. Moreover, activities such as excitement and sleep are also controlled here in collaboration with the thalamus.
The thalamus lies between the brainstem and the hemispheres of the brain, performing a function rather like a junction or relay station. This section gathers all the signals sent by the sense receptors, except for those from the olfactory (smell) receptors, and conveys these signals to the cortex reflecting the information; there is also a role played in consciously identifying sensations such as pain, touch and noise. There is also a role played in the sensory changes that occur with the perception of senses in our consciousness and awareness, as well as in the regulation of sleep and paying attention. The hypothalamus, which is located below the thalamus, is an important center that controls sexual senses; the sensations of pain, pleasure, hunger, and thirst, as well as blood pressure, temperature and other functions of the inner organs. It also performs the important duty of regulating hormone release. The nerve fibers that enter this center, which is the location of a very complex network of nerves coming from the olfactory bulb, thalamus, and the frontal lobe, reach the autonomic nervous system, the reticular formation in the stem section, and the posterior lobe behind the pituitary gland (hypophysis). The pituitary gland, one of the most important systems that earlier described itself in the endocrine system, produces hormones that stimulate secretion in the anterior section, as well as the oxytocin and antidiuretic hormones which are stored and released from the posterior pituitary.
On the base of the deep grove that separates the two hemispheres of the large brain there is a callus-like body; this is a bundle of axon (nerves) called the corpus callosum which connects the two hemispheres. Because the nerve fibers cross and change direction in the medulla, the left side of the brain controls your right side, and the right controls your left. Although my two hemispheres may look like a reflection of one another, there are some variations in their duties; for example, the left hemisphere controls speech, but the section which controls the perception of location is in the right hemisphere. Whilst you use the left hemisphere for duties that must be performed in a specific order (activities such as adding and subtracting or buttoning a shirt), you use the right hemisphere in thinking with images (for example, mapping the route from your home to the market). If the callus substance that connects my two hemispheres did not exist, there would be no communication between the two, therefore, you could read the word â€śfish,â€ť but you would not be able to picture the image of a fish in your mind without the right hemisphere to achieve this.
The brain, the grey-colored mass of folds and grooves that covers the top of my anatomic hemispheres, the region where the main stems of my cells are found, is called the cortex or grey matter; the lighter colored matter that lies beneath this, the region where the axons (stems of neurons) are found, is called the white matter. My cortex region, which is composed of six layers of cells, is the center where the sensory signals are received and analyzed and where voluntary muscle movement is controlled, while also being the center of activities, such as learning, reasoning, and remembering. My two hemispheres, the focal point of conscious activity and thought that forms the large brain, constitute 85% of the whole brain. When you were first born I weighed 400 grams, but I grew very quickly, and by the time you were a year old I weighed 800 grams. When you were four years old, I weighed 1,200 gr. However, my growth began to slow down after the age of seven, and when you reach twenty, I will weigh approximately 1,379â€“1,434 grams. When you begin to pass your first youth, my weight begins to decrease every year by 1 gram, so when you reach seventy-five, I would have shrunk in comparison to when you were twenty. The reason for this decrease in weight is that approximate 50,000 neurons die, or cease to function daily, after you reach the age of twenty. The body cells of the cartilage, bone, skin, ligaments and the liver divide, regenerate and increase in number; however, the nerve cells that are part of me continue to increase until they reach the figure set out for you when you were formed in your motherâ€™s womb; they then lose the ability to segregate. So if there is any damage, relative functions fail because the cells in that region have died. Then the question arises: As there is no increase in the numbers of cells, how does the weight continue to increase until the age of twenty? Well, there is not an increase in the numbers of cells; rather, there is an increase in the number and growth of connections between the cells and this is how my weight increases. Of course, nutrients are added to build and stimulate these connections. Subsequently, with age these connections begin to decrease. With ever experience you have, all the things that you learn or see during your youth these connections increase, and in turn this increases my capacity for thought and reasoning. If you continue to activate your brain by reading, writing and other social activities in old age, these connections continue to increase. Even if there is a decrease in my cells, you are able to continue your usual activities without losing any functions of the brain. But as soon as you say that is enough, it is time for a rest, my cells begin to withdraw their connections immediately, and in time you will certainly see the difference in my capacity. If the cells in my central nervous system are injured or damaged, they cannot repair themselves. However, if the cell bodies of my cells in the peripheral nervous system are not damaged the stems are repairable.
Thanks to this special feature if a severed arm, leg or finger can be carefully replaced with microsurgery, the nerves can repair themselves, and the limb will continue its normal functions. The visible cause of this characteristic is found in the nerves of the arms and legs, but not in the brain or spine, is the casing that surrounds this bundle of nerves that transmits signals for the cells to grow. Even with the greatest of techniques, no surgeon could sew the severed nerve fibers. However, thanks to the nerve casing that holds these fibers together (like the plastic that covers the electric cable, consisting of thin wires) the severed limb can be replanted. Then with guidance from this outer casing, each of the hundreds of fibers found inside grow 1 mm every day, and in a period of between 1 month and a year, they will begin to function again.
Irfan Yilmaz is a professor of biology at Dokuz Eylul University, Izmir.