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The Spinal Cord: A Conduit and Processor of Information

The Spinal Cord: A Conduit and Processor of Information

The spinal cord acts as a conduit of information between the brain and the body periphery. Information from the brain is encoded in the form of electrical impulses that are propagated along the cellular processes (axons) of nerve cells (neurons). The signals are then transmitted to lower neurons that are located in the spinal cord. These send processes to the rest of the body. This flow of electrical signals moves in both directions.

However, the spinal cord does not only act as a cable that transports information, it also computes and integrates inputs of neurons in the brain and the periphery, e.g. to coordinate walking.

The Three Main Cell Types of the Spinal Cord

The cellular components of the spinal cord are the same as for the rest of the brain. They consist of neurons and support cells often referred to as glial cells. Glia cells comprise astrocytes that provide a scaffold for the brain and seal blood vessels, microglia, a type of immune cell in the central nervous system, and myelin sheath producing oligodendrocytes. Myelin sheaths are insulating layers that surround axons and enable fast signal conduction. They also protect axons and provide nutrients.

Segmental Organisation of the Spinal Cord

The spinal cord is organised in segments. Each segment receives input from the brain and from a specific area of the body. Furthermore, each segment controls a specific muscle group.

What Happens When the Spinal Cord is Damaged?

It is thought that cord compression in CSM results in three types of injury. First, the pressure reduces the blood flow in the spinal cord, chronically starving cells of oxygen and nutrients. Second, inflammation, which probably occurs as a result of cell death, which contributes to further damage. Third, mechanical stretch may affect the ascending and descending processes of neurons.

Depending on the severity, damaging the spinal cord will interrupt the flow of information and destroy the computational units.