Sensory information from receptors throughout most of the body is relayed to the brain by means of ascending tracts of fibers that conduct impulses up the spinal cord. When the brain directs motor activities, these directions are in the form of nerve impulses that travel down the spinal cord in descending tracts of fibers.
The spinal cord extends from the level of the foramen magnum of the skull to the first lumbar vertebra. Unlike the brain, in which the gray matter forms a cortex over white matter, the gray matter of the spinal cord is located centrally, surrounded by white matter. The central gray matter of the spinal cord is arranged in the form of an H, with two dorsal horns and two ventral horns (also called posterior and anterior horns, respectively). The white matter of the spinal cord is composed of ascending and descending fiber tracts. These are arranged into six columns of white matter called funiculi.
The fiber tracts within the white matter of the spinal cord are named to indicate whether they are ascending (sensory) or descending (motor) tracts. The names of the ascending tracts usually start with the prefix spino- and end with the name of the brain region where the spinal cord fibers first synapse. The anterior spinothalamic tract, for example, carries impulses conveying the sense of touch and pressure, and synapses in the thalamus. From there it is relayed to the cerebral cortex. The names of descending motor tracts, conversely, begin with a prefix denoting the brain region that gives rise to the fibers and end with the suffix -spinal. The lateral corticospinal tracts, for example, begin in the cerebral cortex and descend the spinal cord.
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