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The Vertebrate Nervous System

Vertebrate Brains
Although all vertebrate brains share the same basic three-part structure, the development of their constituent parts varies across the evolutionary scale. In fish, the cerebrum is dwarfed by the rest of the brain and serves mostly to process input from the senses. In reptiles and amphibians, the cerebrum is proportionally larger and begins to connect and form conclusions about this input. Birds have well-developed optic lobes, making the cerebrum even larger. Among mammals, the cerebrum dominates the brain. It is most developed among primates, in whom cognitive ability is the highest.

Vertebrate animals have a bony spine and skull in which the central part of the nervous system is housed; the peripheral part extends throughout the remainder of the body. That part of the nervous system located in the skull is referred to as the brain; that found in the spine is called the spinal cord. The brain and the spinal cord are continuous through an opening in the base of the skull; both are also in contact with other parts of the body through the nerves. The distinction made between the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system is based on the different locations of the two intimately related parts of a single system. Some of the processes of the cell bodies conduct sense impressions and others conduct muscle responses, called reflexes, such as those caused by pain (see Reflex).

In the skin are cells of several types called receptors; each is especially sensitive to particular stimuli. Free nerve endings are sensitive to pain and are directly activated. The neurons so activated send impulses into the central nervous system and have junctions with other cells that have axons extending back into the periphery. Impulses are carried from processes of these cells to motor endings within the muscles. These neuromuscular endings excite the muscles, resulting in muscular contraction and appropriate movement. The pathway taken by the nerve impulse in mediating this simple response is in the form of a two-neuron arc that begins and ends in the periphery. Many of the actions of the nervous system can be explained on the basis of such reflex arcs, which are chains of interconnected nerve cells, stimulated at one end and capable of bringing about movement or glandular secretion at the other.