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Fact files

Nervous system - Nerve Cells and Nerves

Function: To transmit messages from one part of your body to another

Neurons: Messenger cells in your nervous system

Nerve impulses: Electrical signals carrying messages

Neurotransmitters: Chemicals released by one neuron to excite a neighbouring one

Millions of messengers

Your nervous system contains millions of nerve cells, called neurons. Neurons are highly specialised to transmit messages from one part of your body to another.

All neurons have a cell body and one or more fibres. These fibres vary in length from microscopic to over 1 metre. There are two different kinds of nerve fibres: fibres that carry information towards the cell body, called dendrites, and fibres that carry information away from it, called axons. Nerves are tight bundles of nerve fibres.

Teamwork

Your neurons can be divided into three types:

  • Sensory neurons, which pass information about stimuli such as light, heat or chemicals from both inside and outside your body to your central nervous system
  • Motor neurons, which pass instructions from your central nervous system to other parts of your body, such as muscles or glands
  • Association neurons, which connect your sensory and motor neurons

Electrical and chemical signals

Your neurons carry messages in the form of electrical signals called nerve impulses. To create a nerve impulse, your neurons have to be excited. Stimuli such as light, sound or pressure all excite your neurons, but in most cases, chemicals released by other neurons will trigger a nerve impulse.

Although you have millions of neurons that are densely packed within your nervous system, they never actually touch. So when a nerve impulse reaches the end of one neuron, a neurotransmitter chemical is released. It diffuses from this neuron across a junction and excites the next neuron.

Protecting cells

Over half of all the nerve cells in your nervous system do not transmit any impulses. These supporting nerve cells are located between and around your neurons to insulate, protect and nourish them.

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