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Health Information For Teens
The brain controls what you think and feel, how you learn and remember, and the way you move and talk. But it also controls things you’re less aware of — like the beating of your heart and the digestion of your food.
Think of the brain as a central computer that controls all the body’s functions. The rest of the nervous system is like a network that relays messages back and forth from the brain to different parts of the body. It does this via the spinal cord, which runs from the brain down through the back. It contains threadlike nerves that branch out to every organ and body part.
When a message comes into the brain from anywhere in the body, the brain tells the body how to react. For example, if you touch a hot stove, the nerves in your skin shoot a message of pain to your brain. The brain then sends a message back telling the muscles in your hand to pull away. Luckily, this neurological relay race happens in an instant.
The nervous system is made up of the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system:
The human brain is incredibly compact, weighing just 3 pounds. It has many folds and grooves, though. These give it the added surface area needed for storing the body’s important information.
The spinal cord is a long bundle of nerve tissue about 18 inches long and 1/2-inch thick. It extends from the lower part of the brain down through spine. Along the way, nerves branch out to the entire body.
The brain and the spinal cord are protected by bone: the brain by the bones of the skull, and the spinal cord by a set of ring-shaped bones called vertebrae. They’re both cushioned by layers of membranes called meninges and a special fluid called cerebrospinal fluid. This fluid helps protect the nerve tissue, keep it healthy, and remove waste products.
The brain has three main sections: the forebrain, the midbrain, and the hindbrain.
The forebrain is the largest and most complex part of the brain. It consists of the cerebrum — the area with all the folds and grooves typically seen in pictures of the brain — as well as other structures under it.
The cerebrum contains the information that essentially makes you who you are: your intelligence, memory, personality, emotion, speech, and ability to feel and move. Specific areas of the cerebrum are in charge of processing these different types of information. These are called lobes, and there are four of them: the frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital lobes.
The cerebrum has right and left halves, called hemispheres. They’re connected in the middle by a band of nerve fibers (the corpus callosum) that lets them communicate. These halves may look like mirror images of each other, but many scientists believe they have different functions:
So when you’re balancing your checkbook, you’re using the left side. When you’re listening to music, you’re using the right side. It’s believed that some people are more “right-brained” or “left-brained” while others are more “whole-brained,” meaning they use both halves of their brain to the same degree.
The outer layer of the cerebrum is called the cortex (also known as “gray matter”). Information collected by the five senses comes into the brain to the cortex. This information is then directed to other parts of the nervous system for further processing. For example, when you touch the hot stove, not only does a message go out to move your hand, but one also goes to another part of the brain to help you remember not to do that again.
In the inner part of the forebrain sits the thalamus, hypothalamus, and
that control growth, metabolism, water and mineral balance, sexual maturity, and response to stress.
The midbrain, underneath the middle of the forebrain, acts as a master coordinator for all the messages going in and out of the brain to the spinal cord.
The hindbrain sits underneath the back end of the cerebrum. It consists of the cerebellum, pons, and medulla. The cerebellum — also called the “little brain” because it looks like a small version of the cerebrum — is responsible for balance, movement, and coordination.
The pons and the medulla, along with the midbrain, are often called the brainstem. The brainstem takes in, sends out, and coordinates the brain’s messages. It also controls many of the body’s automatic functions, like breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, swallowing, digestion, and blinking.
The basic workings of the nervous system depend a lot on tiny cells called neurons. The brain has billions of them, and they have many specialized jobs. For example, sensory neurons send information from the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin to the brain. Motor neurons carry messages away from the brain to the rest of the body.
All neurons relay information to each other through a complex electrochemical process, making connections that affect the way you think, learn, move, and behave.
Intelligence, learning, and memory. As you grow and learn, messages travel from one neuron to another over and over, creating connections, or pathways, in the brain. It’s why driving takes so much concentration when someone first learns it, but later is second nature: The pathway became established.
In young children, the brain is highly adaptable. In fact, when one part of a young child’s brain is injured, another part often can learn to take over some of the lost function. But as you age, the brain has to work harder to make new neural pathways, making it harder to master new tasks or change set behavior patterns. That’s why many scientists believe it’s important to keep challenging the brain to learn new things and make new connections — it helps keeps the brain active over the course of a lifetime.
Memory is another complex function of the brain. The things you’ve done, learned, and seen are first processed in the cortex. Then, if you sense that this information is important enough to remember permanently, it’s passed inward to other regions of the brain (such as the hippocampus and amygdala) for long-term storage and retrieval. As these messages travel through the brain, they too create pathways that serve as the basis of memory.
Movement. Different parts of the cerebrum move different body parts. The left side of the brain controls the movements of the right side of the body, and the right side of the brain controls the movements of the left side of the body. When you press your car’s accelerator with your right foot, for example, it’s the left side of your brain that sends the message allowing you to do it.
Basic body functions. A part of the peripheral nervous system called the autonomic nervous system controls many of the body processes you almost never need to think about, like breathing, digestion, sweating, and shivering. The autonomic nervous system has two parts: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for sudden stress, like if you witness a robbery. When something frightening happens, the sympathetic nervous system makes the heart beat faster so that it sends blood quickly to the different body parts that might need it. It also causes the
at the top of the kidneys to release adrenaline, a hormone that helps give extra power to the muscles for a quick getaway. This process is known as the body’s “fight or flight” response.
The parasympathetic nervous system does the opposite: It prepares the body for rest. It also helps the digestive tract move along so our bodies can efficiently take in nutrients from the food we eat.
Sight. Sight probably tells us more about the world than any other sense. Light entering the eye forms an upside-down image on the retina. The retina transforms the light into nerve signals for the brain. The brain then turns the image right-side up and tells you what you’re seeing.
Hearing. Every sound you hear is the result of sound waves entering your ears and making your eardrums vibrate. These vibrations then move along the tiny bones of the middle ear and turn into nerve signals. The cortex then processes these signals, telling you what you’re hearing.
Taste. The tongue contains small groups of sensory cells called taste buds that react to chemicals in foods. Taste buds react to sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory. The taste buds send messages to the areas in the cortex responsible for processing taste.
Smell. Olfactory cells in the mucous membranes lining each nostril react to chemicals you breathe in and send messages along specific nerves to the brain.
Touch. The skin contains millions of sensory receptors that gather information related to touch, pressure, temperature, and pain and send it to the brain for processing and reaction.
Did you ever wonder what all those complex body systems do? Use this medical library to find out about basic human anatomy, how it all functions, and what happens when things go wrong.
Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain. Although encephalitis sounds scary, understanding its causes, symptoms, and treatment can help you feel prepared to deal with it if you ever need to.
Seizures are a common symptom of epilepsy, a condition that affects millions of people worldwide. Learn all about epilepsy, including what to do if you see someone having a seizure.
Fear is a normal human reaction that protects us by signaling danger and preparing us to deal with it. Get the facts about fears and phobias and what causes them.
In a concussion, the brain shifts inside the skull. This can cause a sudden – but usually temporary – disruption in a person’s ability to function properly and feel well. Here’s what to do if you suspect a concussion.
You may be wondering what the deal is with meningitis because you’ve heard frightening stuff about meningitis outbreaks in the news.
If you’ve ever had a migraine, you know that these headaches can cause severe pain and other symptoms. Read about migraine causes, treatments, prevention tips, and lots more.
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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