OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology
Damage to the nervous system can be limited to individual structures or can be distributed across broad areas of the brain and spinal cord. Localized, limited injury to the nervous system is most often the result of circulatory problems. Neurons are very sensitive to oxygen deprivation and will start to deteriorate within 1 or 2 minutes, and permanent damage (cell death) could result within a few hours. The loss of blood flow to part of the brain is known as a stroke, or a cerebrovascular accident (CVA).
There are two main types of stroke, depending on how the blood supply is compromised: ischemic and hemorrhagic. An ischemic stroke is the loss of blood flow to an area because vessels are blocked or narrowed. This is often caused by an embolus, which may be a blood clot or fat deposit. Ischemia may also be the result of thickening of the blood vessel wall, or a drop in blood volume in the brain known as hypovolemia.
A related type of CVA is known as a transient ischemic attack (TIA), which is similar to a stroke although it does not last as long. The diagnostic definition of a stroke includes effects that last at least 24 hours. Any stroke symptoms that are resolved within a 24-hour period because of restoration of adequate blood flow are classified as a TIA.
A hemorrhagic stroke is bleeding into the brain because of a damaged blood vessel. Accumulated blood fills a region of the cranial vault and presses against the tissue in the brain. Physical pressure on the brain can cause the loss of function, as well as the squeezing of local arteries resulting in compromised blood flow beyond the site of the hemorrhage. As blood pools in the nervous tissue and the vasculature is damaged, the blood-brain barrier can break down and allow additional fluid to accumulate in the region, which is known as edema.
Whereas hemorrhagic stroke may involve bleeding into a large region of the CNS, such as into the deep white matter of a cerebral hemisphere, other events can cause widespread damage and loss of neurological functions. Infectious diseases can lead to loss of function throughout the CNS as components of nervous tissue, specifically astrocytes and microglia, react to the disease. Blunt force trauma, such as from a motor vehicle accident, can physically damage the CNS.
A class of disorders that affect the nervous system are the neurodegenerative diseases: Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Creutzfeld–Jacob disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), and other disorders that are the result of nervous tissue degeneration. In diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or ALS, neurons die; in diseases like MS, myelin is affected. Some of these disorders affect motor function, and others present with dementia. How patients with these disorders perform in the neurological exam varies, but is often broad in its effects, such as memory deficits that compromise many aspects of the mental status exam, or movement deficits that compromise aspects of the cranial nerve exam, the motor exam, or the coordination exam. The causes of these disorders are also varied. Some are the result of genetics, such as Huntington’s disease, or the result of autoimmunity, such as MS; others are not entirely understood, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Current research suggests that many of these diseases are related in how the degeneration takes place and may be treated by common therapies.
Finally, a common cause of neurological changes is observed in developmental disorders. Whether the result of genetic factors or the environment during development, there are certain situations that result in neurological functions being different from the expected norms. Developmental disorders are difficult to define because they are caused by defects that existed in the past and disrupted the normal development of the CNS. These defects probably involve multiple environmental and genetic factors—most of the time, we don’t know what the cause is other than that it is more complex than just one factor. Furthermore, each defect on its own may not be a problem, but when several are added together, they can disrupt growth processes that are not well understand in the first place. For instance, it is possible for a stroke to damage a specific region of the brain and lead to the loss of the ability to recognize faces (prosopagnosia). The link between cell death in the fusiform gyrus and the symptom is relatively easy to understand. In contrast, similar deficits can be seen in children with the developmental disorder, autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, these children do not lack a fusiform gyrus, nor is there any damage or defect visible to this brain region. We conclude, rather poorly, that this brain region is not connected properly to other brain regions.
Infection, trauma, and congenital disorders can all lead to significant signs, as identified through the neurological exam. It is important to differentiate between an acute event, such as stroke, and a chronic or global condition such as blunt force trauma. Responses seen in the neurological exam can help. A loss of language function observed in all its aspects is more likely a global event as opposed to a discrete loss of one function, such as not being able to say certain types of words. A concern, however, is that a specific function—such as controlling the muscles of speech—may mask other language functions. The various subtests within the mental status exam can address these finer points and help clarify the underlying cause of the neurological loss.
Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/anatomy-and-physiology