Afferent vs Efferent Neurons

Afferent vs Efferent

Afferent and efferent neurons are the two primary types of neurons that play distinct yet interconnected roles in this communication network. Afferent nerve fibers, also known as sensory neurons, carry signals from sensory receptors towards the central nervous system. They inform the brain about what is happening in the internal and external environments, thus allowing an organism to react accordingly to different stimuli.

Efferent neurons, also known as motor neurons, transmit commands from the central nervous system to the effector cells in the body, such as muscles and glands, prompting them to take action. Through these efferent fibers, the brain can initiate movements, adjust the functioning of internal organs, or respond to changes needing corrective actions, such as regulating blood pressure. Motor neurons have a long axon and multiple dendrites that facilitate the transmission of signals to the target tissues.

These two systems work together to ensure the body responds appropriately to its environment. Whether it’s the sensation of a hot surface which triggers a withdrawal reflex or the intricate modulation of heart rate, afferent and efferent nerves are constantly at work, orchestrating the body’s responses.

Afferent Neurons

Sensory neurons play a pivotal role in sensing external and internal conditions. They carry signals from sensory receptors located throughout the body directly to the CNS, which includes the spinal cord and brain.

This process starts with the activation of receptors by stimuli, followed by the generation of electrical impulses that travel along afferent nerves. The dorsal root ganglia house the cell bodies of these neurons outside the spinal cord, while central axons enter the spinal cord via the dorsal roots.

Sensory afferent receptors are specialized to respond to specific types of stimuli such as light, sound, touch, temperature, and chemicals. There are several classes of receptors, including mechanoreceptors, photoreceptors, and chemoreceptors.

Sensory receptors convert physical stimuli into electrical signals that are then propagated via afferent neurons to the CNS for interpretation. Each receptor type is tuned to specific modalities, allowing for detailed sensing capabilities.

Once sensory information is collected, it must be conveyed to the CNS via specific ascending pathways. The primary afferents synapse with interneurons or directly with second-order neurons in the spinal cord or medulla oblongata.

Notable tracts involved in this transmission include the spinothalamic tract, which is vital for conveying information about pain and temperature. From these initial synapses, signals are relayed through various tracts to reach higher brain centers where the sensory inputs are processed and integrated.

Internal Sensory Receptors

Interoceptors are internal receptors that respond to internal physiological changes in the body. Nociceptors are a type of Interoceptor that sends signals to the brain and spinal cord in response to potentially harmful stimuli.

This mechanism, known as nociception, usually results in the sense of pain. They are found in both inside organs and on the body’s surface to “detect and protect”. Nociceptors detect various types of noxious stimuli that indicate potential damage and then initiate neural responses to withdraw from the stimulus.

Mechanical nociceptors detect excess pressure or mechanical deformation, such as a pinch. Thermal nociceptors respond to harmful heat or cold at varying temperatures. Chemical nociceptors react to a wide range of substances, some of which elicit a reaction. They are involved in the detection of some spices in food.

Baroreceptors respond to pressure in blood vessels. In addition, the aortic and carotid bodies contain glomus cell clusters, which are peripheral chemoreceptors that detect changes in blood chemical properties such as oxygen concentration.

Efferent Neurons

An efferent neuron, or motor neuron, is a neuron with a cell body in the motor cortex, brainstem, or spinal cord and an axon (fiber) that projects to the spinal cord or outside of it to directly or indirectly regulate effector organs, primarily muscles and glands. There are two types of motor neurons: upper motor neurons and lower motor neurons.

These terms have a slightly different meaning in the context of the peripheral nervous system (PNS) and central nervous system (CNS).

A single motor neuron can innervate several muscle fibers, and a muscle fiber can experience multiple action potentials in the time it takes for a single muscle twitch. Innervation occurs at a neuromuscular junction, and twitches may be overlaid as a result of summation or tetanic contraction. Individual twitches can become indistinguishable, as tension gradually rises, eventually reaching a plateau.

Upper Efferent Neurons

Upper motor neurons begin in the motor cortex, which is located in the precentral gyrus. The primary motor cortex is made up of Betz cells, which are enormous pyramidal cells. These cells’ axons descend from the cortex, forming the corticospinal tract.

Corticomotor neurons project directly from the primary cortex to motor neurons in the ventral horn of the spinal cord. Their axons synapse with spinal motor neurons from various muscles as well as spinal interneurons.

Corticomotorneurons are unique to primates, and their function is thought to be adaptive control of the hands, including relatively independent control of individual fingers. They have so far only been discovered in the main motor cortex, not in secondary motor areas.

Lower Efferent Neurons

Lower motor neurons originate in the spinal cord and provide direct or indirect innervation to effector targets. These neurons’ targets vary, but in the somatic nervous system, the goal is typically a muscle fiber. Lower motor neurons are classified into three basic categories, which are further subdivided.

Motor neurons are divided into three categories based on their targets; Somatic motor neurons, Special visceral motor neurons, and General visceral motor neurons.

Somatic motor neurons originate in the central nervous system and send their axons to locomotion-related skeletal muscles. These neurons are classified into three types: alpha, beta, and gamma efferent neurons. The term efferent refers to the flow of information from the central nervous system (CNS) to the periphery.

Special visceral motor neurons, also known as branchial motor neurons, control facial expression, mastication, phonation, and swallowing. The associated cranial nerves are the oculomotor, abducens, trochlear, and hypoglossal nerves.

General visceral motor neurons indirectly innervate cardiac muscle and smooth muscles of the viscera (artery muscles) by synapsing onto neurons in autonomic nervous system (sympathetic and parasympathetic) ganglia in the peripheral nervous system (PNS), which directly innervate visceral muscles (and some gland cells).

  1. Campbell, Neil (1996). Biology (4th ed.). Benjamin/Cummings Pub. Co. ISBN 0805319409
  2. Kalat, James W. (2013). Biological Psychology (11th ed.). Wadsworth Publishing. ISBN 978-1111831004
  3. Lemon, Roger N. (2008). Descending Pathways in Motor Control. Annual Review of Neuroscience. 31 (1): 195–218. doi:10.1146/annurev.neuro.31.060407.125547
  4. Mack, Sarah; Kandel, Eric R.; Jessell, Thomas M.; Schwartz, James H.; Siegelbaum, Steven A.; Hudspeth, A. J. (2013). Principles of neural science. Kandel, Eric R. (5th ed.). New York. ISBN 9780071390118
  5. St. John Smith, Ewan (2017). Advances in understanding nociception and neuropathic pain. Journal of Neurology. 265 (2): 231–238. doi: 10.1007/s00415-017-8641-6
  6. Tortora, Gerard; Derrickson, Bryan (2014). Principles of Anatomy & Physiology (14th ed.). New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN 978-1-118-34500-9