Chapter 14. The Central Nervous System

14.4 The Spinal Cord

The Spinal Cord

The description of the CNS is concentrated on the structures of the brain, but the spinal cord is another major organ of the system. Whereas the brain develops out of expansions of the neural tube into primary and then secondary vesicles, the spinal cord maintains the tube structure and is only specialized into certain regions. As the spinal cord continues to develop in the newborn, anatomical features mark its surface. The anterior midline is marked by the anterior median fissure, and the posterior midline is marked by the posterior median sulcus. Axons enter the posterior side through the dorsal (posterior) nerve root, which marks the posterolateral sulcus on either side. The axons emerging from the anterior side do so through the ventral (anterior) nerve root. Note that it is common to see the terms dorsal (dorsal = “back”) and ventral (ventral = “belly”) used interchangeably with posterior and anterior, particularly in reference to nerves and the structures of the spinal cord. You should learn to be comfortable with both.

On the whole, the posterior regions are responsible for sensory functions and the anterior regions are associated with motor functions. This comes from the initial development of the spinal cord, which is divided into the basal plate and the alar plate. The basal plate is closest to the ventral midline of the neural tube, which will become the anterior face of the spinal cord and gives rise to motor neurons. The alar plate is on the dorsal side of the neural tube and gives rise to neurons that will receive sensory input from the periphery.

The length of the spinal cord is divided into regions that correspond to the regions of the vertebral column. The name of a spinal cord region corresponds to the level at which spinal nerves pass through the intervertebral foramina. Immediately adjacent to the brain stem is the cervical region, followed by the thoracic, then the lumbar, and finally the sacral region. The spinal cord is not the full length of the vertebral column because the spinal cord does not grow significantly longer after the first or second year, but the skeleton continues to grow. The nerves that emerge from the spinal cord pass through the intervertebral formina at the respective levels. As the vertebral column grows, these nerves grow with it and result in a long bundle of nerves that resembles a horse’s tail and is named the cauda equina. The sacral spinal cord is at the level of the upper lumbar vertebral bones. The spinal nerves extend from their various levels to the proper level of the vertebral column.

Gray Horns

In cross-section, the gray matter of the spinal cord has the appearance of an ink-blot test, with the spread of the gray matter on one side replicated on the other—a shape reminiscent of a bulbous capital “H.” As shown in Figure 14.41, the gray matter is subdivided into regions that are referred to as horns. The posterior horn is responsible for sensory processing. The anterior horn sends out motor signals to the skeletal muscles. The lateral horn, which is only found in the thoracic, upper lumbar, and sacral regions, is the central component of the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system.

Some of the largest neurons of the spinal cord are the multipolar motor neurons in the anterior horn. The fibers that cause contraction of skeletal muscles are the axons of these neurons. The motor neuron that causes contraction of the big toe, for example, is located in the sacral spinal cord. The axon that has to reach all the way to the belly of that muscle may be a meter in length. The neuronal cell body that maintains that long fiber must be quite large, possibly several hundred micrometers in diameter, making it one of the largest cells in the body.


This figure shows the cross section of the spinal cord. The top panel shows a diagram of the cross section and the major parts are labeled. The bottom panel shows an ultrasound image of the spinal cord cross section.

Figure 14.41 – Cross-section of Spinal Cord: The cross-section of a thoracic spinal cord segment shows the posterior, anterior, and lateral horns of gray matter, as well as the posterior, anterior, and lateral columns of white matter. LM × 40. (Micrograph provided by the Regents of University of Michigan Medical School © 2012)

White Columns

Just as the gray matter is separated into horns, the white matter of the spinal cord is separated into columns. Ascending tracts of nervous system fibers in these columns carry sensory information up to the brain, whereas descending tracts carry motor commands from the brain. Looking at the spinal cord longitudinally, the columns extend along its length as continuous bands of white matter. Between the two posterior horns of gray matter are the posterior columns. Between the two anterior horns, and bounded by the axons of motor neurons emerging from that gray matter area, are the anterior columns. The white matter on either side of the spinal cord, between the posterior horn and the axons of the anterior horn neurons, are the lateral columns. The posterior columns are composed of axons of ascending tracts. The anterior and lateral columns are composed of many different groups of axons of both ascending and descending tracts—the latter carrying motor commands down from the brain to the spinal cord to control output to the periphery.

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Watch this video to learn about the gray matter of the spinal cord that receives input from fibers of the dorsal (posterior) root and sends information out through the fibers of the ventral (anterior) root. As discussed in this video, these connections represent the interactions of the CNS with peripheral structures for both sensory and motor functions. The cervical and lumbar spinal cords have enlargements as a result of larger populations of neurons. What are these enlargements responsible for?