Neural Pathways Of The Brain Essay Research

Neural Pathways Of The Brain Essay, Research Paper

Everyday, we rely on our five senses: taste, touch, seeing, hearing, and smelling.

These are simple processes that we have accepted as part of our lives. However, the

process which lets our body actually use these senses is not so simple. In this paper I will

look at the ways which the nervous system and the brain work together to produce our


Seeing The Light

Humans are intensely visual animals. The eyes send millions of nerve signals every

second for analysis, interpretation, and recording. The nerve signals represent energy

transformed, or transducer, from the energy in light rays.

Inside the eye, light rays pass through the cornea and then the pupil in the center of

the iris. The fixed cornea and adjustable lens bend light rays to focus a clear image onto

the retina. As with an equivalent man-made lens, the image is inverted. But since this is the

case from birth, we never know any different, and so it is not a problem.

The retina has two types of light sensitive cells- rods and cones. The 125 million

rods detect shades of black and white. The 5-7 million cones detect color and fall into 3

types, each of which is most sensitive to one of the primary colors of light: red, blue, and

green. Most cones are in the center of the retina, especially in the fovea- a rod-free area

where vision is the sharpest. Rods, and some cones, are found in the rest of the retina

(Greenfield, 197).

Each rod cell is about 150-200 micrometers long. at one end, next to a layer of

pigment cells and facing the outside of the eyeball, it has a stack of disks studded with the

chemicals that play a part in transducing light energy. Toward its other end, it has a

nucleus and other standard cell parts, such as a mitochondria. At its bas, it connects with

dendrites of intermediary cells which link it to the retinal ganglion cells (Gregory, 96)

These send nerve signals to the brain, and their axons for the optic nerve. Each retina has a

blind spot, a receptor-free area where all the axons leave the eye.

Before light can reach rods and cones at the rear layer of the retina, it travels

through several other layers. These are made up of blood vessels and the so-called neural

cells of the retina- bipolar, horizontal, and ganglion cells (Gregory,98). Behind the rods

and cones is a layer of pigment cells which absorb any stray light and prevent it from

reflecting back to the retina.(See Figure 1)

Nerve signals from the 1 million ganglion cells in the retina of each eye pass along

the optic nerve to a half-crossover junction- the optic chiasma. The signals continue along

the optic tracts to paired parts of the thalamus known as lateral geniculate nuclei, or LCNs

(Kellog,57). They then continue along fan-shaped optic radiations to their main

destination, the visual cortex of each occipital lobe. These are sited at the lower central

back of the cerebrum.

The visual cortices are sight centers concerned with decoding and analyzing the

nerve signals from the retinal ganglion cells. Each region of visual cortex has a number, so

the primary visual cortex, the main reception area for visual signals is V1. The activities of

V1 s patchwork of neurons represents a pattern of signals sent in by the retinal ganglion

cells. Around it in the secondary visual cortex are regions V2, V3, etc (Kellog,59) They

sort the various aspects of vision, such as shape and form, color, contrast, distance and

depth, and movement or motion. The results are recombined as these cortical areas

communicate with other parts of the cerebral cortex-mainly the temporal lobe- plus the

language centers and other areas. By such interactions we become aware of the color,

shape, motion, distance, identity and meaning of what we see. (See Figure 2)

Sensing Sound

A sound that hits the ear takes a split second to register in the mind, but the

journey is long and complex.

Sound waves funneled into the ear canal bounce off the ear drum, making it

vibrate. The vibrations pass via the three tiny bones, the auditory ossicles- the malleus,

incus, and stapes- and from them to the oval window, another thin membrane which is part

of the wall of the fluid-filled cochlea. Different parts of the cochlea detect different

pitches-generally low-pitched sounds near its thin tip and shrill sounds at its wider base.

Inside the cochlea on the scala media, is the organ of Corti. Its hairs are arranged in two

rows on the basilar membrane. The hair tips contact the jellylike tectorial membrane. As

pressure waves shake the whole structure, the hairs move, making their cells fire nerve

signals. Nerve impulse pass from the hair cells along some 30,00 axons to the neurons in

the cochlear nerve. This runs beside the vestibular nerve from the ear s balance system as

the vetisbulocochlear nerve (Greenfield, 120). This nerve branched back into vestibular

and cochlear parts as it joins the medulla. The cochlear nerve fibers end in two nuclei on

their side of the medulla. Signals go from the cochlear nuclei to the superior olivery nuclei

on both sides in the medulla, so each side of the auditory cortex receives information from

both ears. The medial superior olive processes information about the localization of sound

to reach each ear. The intensity of the sound is processed by the lateral superior olive

(Restak, 257). This information enables us to tell where the sound is coming from. From

the superior olivery nuclei, more neurons carry the signals in a nerve tract up through the

pons. Some of them relay the signals to the inferior colliculus, which collects data from the

cochlear nuclei and the superior olivery nucleui, helping us recognize the location and

nature of sound. Others bypass and go straight to the thalamus, which focuses attention,

editing out extraneous sounds (Restak, 258). From the medial geniculate nucleus of the

thalamus, nerve signals are sent to the cerebral cortex along fan-shaped sets of fibers

known as auditory radiations. The primary auditory cortex- on the side of the brain- is the

main incoming and processing area for the nerve signals that represent sounds. The

secondary auditory cortex has links with the primary cortex and other parts of the brain, to

coordinate hearing with memories, awareness and the other senses. In both auditory areas,

the arrangement of neurons is tonotopic. This means sounds of different frequencies

stimulate neurons in different rows or columns. The general arrangement is that neurons at

the front, toward the face, respond most to high-pitched sounds and those at the rear to

low-pitched sounds.(See Figures 3 and 4)

Sense of Touch

The detection of physical contact with the body might seem straightforward. But

the fact that we can not only perceive but also tell the difference between a gentle stroke

of the skin and a rough pinch suggests there is more to it. Touch, together with sensations

from within the body about the position and posture of various muscles, tendons, and

joints, makes up the somatosensory system.

Skin sensors ( or cutaneous exeroceptors, are microscopic structures embedded

mainly in the dermis. There are about 6 main kinds and their distribution varies over the

body, from the lips and fingertips to the small of the back (Montagu, 66). Then stimulated

by mechanical distortion or thermal change, these sensors produce nerve signals that are

transmitted along axons. The axons gather into the peripheral nerves. These join the spinal

cord at dorsal nerve roots, and the signals are conveyed along the cord up to the brain.

Signals from touch sensations on the head and face are carried directly to the brain by the

sensory branches of the trigeminal nerves (cranial nerves).

In the brain, information about touch arrives at the somatosensory cortex, a strip

across the top of each hemisphere, just behind the motor cortex. Here it is analyzed and,

after further processing in the brain s association areas, details about the type of touch

enter our conscious awareness(Montagu, 76). (See Figure 5)

A Matter of Taste

Food without flavor would be like the beach without sunshine, so how do we taste

what we eat??

Taste, like smell, is a chemosense- it detects the presence of certain chemicals. The

individual tasters are chemosensory receptor cells, or chemosensors. They are shaped

like segments of an orange and are grouped with supporting cells known as a taste bud

(Kellog, 75).

The specialized chemosensors are short-lived, lasting only 10 days, but they are

replaced within 12 hours. Each taste bud is embedded in the covering layer, or epithelium,

with a small hole that opens to the surface. Dissolved chemicals from food and drink seep

through the hole to the chemosensors, whose tips have tufts of tiny hairs that detect

chemicals (Kellog,76).

Taste signals from the chemoreceptor cells on each side of the tongue and back of

the mouth travel along three pairs of nerves to the brain. From the front two-thirds of the

tongue, they go along a branch of the facial nerve; from the rear third, their rout is via the

lingual branch of the glossopharyngeal nerve; and from the palate and upper throat, it is

along the superior laryngeal branch of the vagus nerve (Greenfield, 54).

All the signals arrive in a region known as the nucleus solitarius in the medulla.

They then pass along more fibers tot the thalamus- the brain s relay station. This sends

signals tot he primary and secondary gustatory areas near the somatosensory area of the

cerebral cortex. Nerve fibers also connect the taste system to the hypothalamus and the

limbic system. This is why taste can affect feelings of hunger and mood (Greenfield, 55).

On the Scent

Like I mentioned before, like taste, smell is a chemosense: it detects the presence

of chemicals, in this case odors or odor molecules.

From the first sniff to recognition, an odor passes along many pathways: through

the olfactory system- from nose to olfactory cortex- to limbic system, thalamus, and

frontal cortex.

In, the olfactory bulb, nerve impulses from olfactory cells enter one of hundreds of

olfactory glomeruli- small ball-like tangles of axons, synapses, dendrites, and cell bodies.

Next the signal goes along the olfactory tract to the secondary olfactory cortex. The

anterior olfactory nucleus links the bulbs from the 2 nostrils via the anterior commisure.

The olfactory tubercle and the pyriform cortex project to other olfactory cortical regions

and to the medial dorsal nucleus of the thalamus. They are involved in conscious

perception of smell. The last two, with the amygdaloid complex and the entorhinal area,

which in turn projects to the hippocampus, are pathways to the limbic system, which is

why smells evoke memories and emotions.

Acting on signals from a region of about 25,000 olfactory receptor cells in the

nose, each glomerulus in the olfactory bulb react to certain odors (Greenfield, 24-26).

Messages are relayed from one glomerulus to the next, probably by periglomerular

cells, and a pattern of activity. For this information, which is in the form of a burst of

nerve signals, to get through to the rest of the brain, it has to be strong enough to survive

the inhibitory effects of cells, which form the olfactory tract, into the olfactory cortex.

Here the signals have to pass through an intermediate layer of cells, the superficial

pyramidal cells. They synapse with and excite stellate cells, as well as deep pyramidal cells.

But when excited, the stellate cells inhibit the deep pyramidal cells, creating a loop of

excitation and inhibition that has the effect of generating bursts of nerve signals which are

then transmitted to other brain regions (Greenfield, 27). (See Figure 6)


Greenfield, Susan A. The Human Mind Explained.

New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1996

Gregory, Richard L. Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing.

Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Kellog, Ronald T. Cognitive Psychology.

London: Sage Publishers, 1995.

Montagu, Ashley. Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin. New York: Colombia

University Press, 1971.

Restak, Richard M.,MD. The Mind.

New York: Bantam Books, 1988.


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