Spinal cord

Spinal cord
Nervous system diagram-en.svg
The spinal cord (in yellow) connects the brain to nerves throughout the body.
Part ofCentral nervous system
Latinmedulla spinalis
Anatomical terminology

The spinal cord is a long, thin, tubular bundle of nervous tissue and support cells that extends from the medulla oblongata in the brainstem to the lumbar region of the vertebral column. The brain and spinal cord together make up the central nervous system (CNS). In humans, the spinal cord begins at the occipital bone where it passes through the foramen magnum, and meets and enters the spinal canal at the beginning of the cervical vertebrae. The spinal cord extends down to between the first and second lumbar vertebrae where it ends. The enclosing bony vertebral column protects the relatively shorter spinal cord. It is around 45 cm (18 in) in men and around 43 cm (17 in) long in women. Also, the spinal cord has a varying width, ranging from 13 mm (12 in) thick in the cervical and lumbar regions to 6.4 mm (14 in) thick in the thoracic area.

The spinal cord functions primarily in the transmission of nerve signals from the motor cortex to the body, and from the afferent fibers of the sensory neurons to the sensory cortex. It is also a center for coordinating many reflexes and contains reflex arcs that can independently control reflexes and central pattern generators.[1]


Diagram of the spinal cord showing segments

The spinal cord is the main pathway for information connecting the brain and peripheral nervous system.[2][3] Much shorter than its protecting spinal column, the human spinal cord originates in the brainstem, passes through the foramen magnum, and continues through to the conus medullaris near the second lumbar vertebra before terminating in a fibrous extension known as the filum terminale.

It is about 45 cm (18 in) long in men and around 43 cm (17 in) in women, ovoid-shaped, and is enlarged in the cervical and lumbar regions. The cervical enlargement, stretching from the C5 to T1 vertebrae, is where sensory input comes from and motor output goes to the arms and trunk. The lumbar enlargement, located between L1 and S3, handles sensory input and motor output coming from and going to the legs.

The spinal cord is continuous with the caudal portion of the medulla, running from the base of the skull to the body of the first lumbar vertebra. It does not run the full length of the vertebral column in adults. It is made of 31 segments from which branch one pair of sensory nerve roots and one pair of motor nerve roots. The nerve roots then merge into bilaterally symmetrical pairs of spinal nerves. The peripheral nervous system is made up of these spinal roots, nerves, and ganglia.

The dorsal roots are afferent fascicles, receiving sensory information from the skin, muscles, and visceral organs to be relayed to the brain. The roots terminate in dorsal root ganglia, which are composed of the cell bodies of the corresponding neurons. Ventral roots consist of efferent fibers that arise from motor neurons whose cell bodies are found in the ventral (or anterior) gray horns of the spinal cord.

The spinal cord (and brain) are protected by three layers of tissue or membranes called meninges, that surround the canal . The dura mater is the outermost layer, and it forms a tough protective coating. Between the dura mater and the surrounding bone of the vertebrae is a space called the epidural space. The epidural space is filled with adipose tissue, and it contains a network of blood vessels. The arachnoid mater, the middle protective layer, is named for its open, spiderweb-like appearance. The space between the arachnoid and the underlying pia mater is called the subarachnoid space. The subarachnoid space contains cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which can be sampled with a lumbar puncture, or "spinal tap" procedure. The delicate pia mater, the innermost protective layer, is tightly associated with the surface of the spinal cord. The cord is stabilized within the dura mater by the connecting denticulate ligaments, which extend from the enveloping pia mater laterally between the dorsal and ventral roots. The dural sac ends at the vertebral level of the second sacral vertebra.

In cross-section, the peripheral region of the cord contains neuronal white matter tracts containing sensory and motor axons. Internal to this peripheral region is the grey matter, which contains the nerve cell bodies arranged in the three grey columns that give the region its butterfly-shape. This central region surrounds the central canal, which is an extension of the fourth ventricle and contains cerebrospinal fluid.

The spinal cord is elliptical in cross section, being compressed dorsolaterally. Two prominent grooves, or sulci, run along its length. The posterior median sulcus is the groove in the dorsal side, and the anterior median fissure is the groove in the ventral side.

Spinal cord segments

Gray 111 - Vertebral column-coloured.png

The human spinal cord is divided into segments where pairs of spinal nerves (mixed; sensory and motor) form. Six to eight motor nerve rootlets branch out of right and left ventro lateral sulci in a very orderly manner. Nerve rootlets combine to form nerve roots. Likewise, sensory nerve rootlets form off right and left dorsal lateral sulci and form sensory nerve roots. The ventral (motor) and dorsal (sensory) roots combine to form spinal nerves (mixed; motor and sensory), one on each side of the spinal cord. Spinal nerves, with the exception of C1 and C2, form inside the intervertebral foramen (IVF). These rootlets form the demarcation between the central and peripheral nervous systems.

Model of a section of a spine.
A model of segments of the human spine and spinal cord, nerve roots can be seen extending laterally from the (not visible) spinal cord.

The grey column, (as three regions of grey columns) in the center of the cord, is shaped like a butterfly and consists of cell bodies of interneurons, motor neurons, neuroglia cells and unmyelinated axons. The anterior and posterior grey column present as projections of the grey matter and are also known as the horns of the spinal cord. Together, the grey columns and the gray commissure form the "grey H."

The white matter is located outside of the grey matter and consists almost totally of myelinated motor and sensory axons. "Columns" of white matter carry information either up or down the spinal cord.

The spinal cord proper terminates in a region called the conus medullaris, while the pia mater continues as an extension called the filum terminale, which anchors the spinal cord to the coccyx. The cauda equina ("horse's tail") is a collection of nerves inferior to the conus medullaris that continue to travel through the vertebral column to the coccyx. The cauda equina forms because the spinal cord stops growing in length at about age four, even though the vertebral column continues to lengthen until adulthood. This results in sacral spinal nerves originating in the upper lumbar region.

Within the CNS, nerve cell bodies are generally organized into functional clusters, called nuclei. Axons within the CNS are grouped into tracts.

There are 31 spinal cord nerve segments in a human spinal cord:

  • 8 cervical segments forming 8 pairs of cervical nerves (C1 spinal nerves exit the spinal column between the foramen magnum and the C1 vertebra; C2 nerves exit between the posterior arch of the C1 vertebra and the lamina of C2; C3–C8 spinal nerves pass through the IVF above their corresponding cervical vertebrae, with the exception of the C8 pair which exit between the C7 and T1 vertebrae)
  • 12 thoracic segments forming 12 pairs of thoracic nerves
  • 5 lumbar segments forming 5 pairs of lumbar nerves
  • 5 sacral segments forming 5 pairs of sacral nerves
  • 1 coccygeal segment
Spinal cord segments in some common species [4]
Species Cervical Thoracic Lumbar Sacral Caudal/Coccygeal Total
Dog 8 13 7 3 5 36
Cat 8 13 7 3 5 36
Cow 8 13 6 5 5 37
Horse 8 18 6 5 5 42
Pig 8 15/14 6/7 4 5 38
Human 8 12 5 5 1 31

In the fetus, vertebral segments correspond with spinal cord segments. However, because the vertebral column grows longer than the spinal cord, spinal cord segments do not correspond to vertebral segments in the adult, particularly in the lower spinal cord. For example, lumbar and sacral spinal cord segments are found between vertebral levels T9 and L2, and the spinal cord ends around the L1/L2 vertebral level, forming a structure known as the conus medullaris.

Although the spinal cord cell bodies end around the L1/L2 vertebral level, the spinal nerves for each segment exit at the level of the corresponding vertebra. For the nerves of the lower spinal cord, this means that they exit the vertebral column much lower (more caudally) than their roots. As these nerves travel from their respective roots to their point of exit from the vertebral column, the nerves of the lower spinal segments form a bundle called the cauda equina.

There are two regions where the spinal cord enlarges:


Spinal cord seen in a midsection of a five-week-old embryo
Spinal cord seen in a midsection of a 3 month old fetus

The spinal cord is made from part of the neural tube during development. There are four stages of the spinal cord that arises from the neural tube: The neural plate, neural fold, neural tube, and the spinal cord. Neural differentiation occurs within the spinal cord portion of the tube.[5] As the neural tube begins to develop, the notochord begins to secrete a factor known as Sonic hedgehog or SHH. As a result, the floor plate then also begins to secrete SHH, and this will induce the basal plate to develop motor neurons. During the maturation of the neural tube, its lateral walls thicken and form a longtitudinal groove called the sulcus limitans. This extends the length of the spinal cord into dorsal and ventral portions as well.[6] Meanwhile, the overlying ectoderm secretes bone morphogenetic protein (BMP). This induces the roof plate to begin to secrete BMP, which will induce the alar plate to develop sensory neurons. Opposing gradients of such morphogens as BMP and SHH form different domains of dividing cells along the dorsal ventral axis.[7] Dorsal root ganglion neurons differentiate from neural crest progenitors. As the dorsal and ventral column cells proliferate, the lumen of the neural tube narrows to form the small central canal of the spinal cord.[8] The alar plate and the basal plate are separated by the sulcus limitans. Additionally, the floor plate also secretes netrins. The netrins act as chemoattractants to decussation of pain and temperature sensory neurons in the alar plate across the anterior white commissure, where they then ascend towards the thalamus. Following the closure of the caudal neuropore and formation of the brain's ventricles that contain the choroid plexus tissue, the central canal of the caudal spinal cord is filled with cerebrospinal fluid.

Earlier findings by Viktor Hamburger and Rita Levi-Montalcini in the chick embryo have been confirmed by more recent studies which have demonstrated that the elimination of neuronal cells by programmed cell death (PCD) is necessary for the correct assembly of the nervous system.[9]

Overall, spontaneous embryonic activity has been shown to play a role in neuron and muscle development but is probably not involved in the initial formation of connections between spinal neurons.

Blood supply

The spinal cord is supplied with blood by three arteries that run along its length starting in the brain, and many arteries that approach it through the sides of the spinal column. The three longitudinal arteries are the anterior spinal artery, and the right and left posterior spinal arteries.[10] These travel in the subarachnoid space and send branches into the spinal cord. They form anastamoses (connections) via the anterior and posterior segmental medullary arteries, which enter the spinal cord at various points along its length.[10] The actual blood flow caudally through these arteries, derived from the posterior cerebral circulation, is inadequate to maintain the spinal cord beyond the cervical segments.

The major contribution to the arterial blood supply of the spinal cord below the cervical region comes from the radially arranged posterior and anterior radicular arteries, which run into the spinal cord alongside the dorsal and ventral nerve roots, but with one exception do not connect directly with any of the three longitudinal arteries.[10] These intercostal and lumbar radicular arteries arise from the aorta, provide major anastomoses and supplement the blood flow to the spinal cord. In humans the largest of the anterior radicular arteries is known as the artery of Adamkiewicz, or anterior radicularis magna (ARM) artery, which usually arises between L1 and L2, but can arise anywhere from T9 to L5.[11] Impaired blood flow through these critical radicular arteries, especially during surgical procedures that involve abrupt disruption of blood flow through the aorta for example during aortic aneursym repair, can result in spinal cord infarction and paraplegia.

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