Nerve is an enclosed, cable-like bundle of fibers (called axons) in the peripheral nervous system.
A nerve transmits electrical impulses. It is the basic unit of the peripheral nervous system. A nerve provides a common pathway for the electrochemical nerve impulses called action potentials that are transmitted along each of the axons to peripheral organs or, in the case of sensory nerves, from the periphery back to the central nervous system.
Each axon, within the nerve, is an extension of an individual neuron, along with other supportive cells such as some Schwann cells that coat the axons in myelin.
Each nerve is covered on the outside by a dense sheath of connective tissue, the epineurium. Beneath this is a layer of fat cells, the perineurium, which forms a complete sleeve around a bundle of axons. Perineurial septae extend into the nerve and subdivide it into several bundles of fibres. Surrounding each such fibre is the endoneurium.
Nerves are categorized into three groups based on the direction that signals are conducted:
- Afferent nerves conduct signals from sensory neurons to the central nervous system, for example from the mechanoreceptors in skin.
- Efferent nerves conduct signals from the central nervous system along motor neurons to their target muscles and glands.
- Mixed nerves contain both afferent and efferent axons, and thus conduct both incoming sensory information and outgoing muscle commands in the same bundle. All spinal nerves are mixed nerves, and some of the cranial nerves are also mixed nerves.
Nerves can be categorized into two groups based on where they connect to the central nervous system:
- Spinal nerves innervate (distribute to/stimulate) much of the body, and connect through the vertebral column to the spinal cord and thus to the central nervous system. They are given letter-number designations according to the vertebra through which they connect to the spinal column.
- Cranial nerves innervate parts of the head, and connect directly to the brain (especially to the brainstem). They are typically assigned Roman numerals from 1 to 12, although cranial nerve zero is sometimes included. In addition, cranial nerves have descriptive names.
This forms an unbroken tube from the surface of the spinal cord to the level where the axon synapses with its muscle fibres, or ends in sensory receptors. The endoneurium consists of an inner sleeve of material called the glycocalyx and an outer, delicate, meshwork of collagen fibres.
Nerves are bundled and often travel along with blood vessels, since the neurons of a nerve have fairly high energy requirements.
The axons are bundled together into groups called fascicles, and each fascicle is wrapped in a layer of connective tissue called the perineurium. Finally, the entire nerve is wrapped in a layer of connective tissue called the epineurium. Nerve cells are called neurons.
Nerves can be categorized into two groups based on function:
- An afferent nerve fiber conducts sensory information from a sensory neuron to the central nervous system, where the information is then processed. Bundles of fibres or axons, in the peripheral nervous system are called nerves, and bundles of afferent fibers are known as sensory nerves.
- An efferent nerve fiber conducts signals from a motor neuron in the central nervous system to muscles. Bundles of these fibres are known as efferent nerves.
In the central nervous system, the analogous structures are known as nerve tracts.