Reading for Vocabulary

As you begin your program of study, you'll find that there are words specific to that field. Words that are used frequently in app development may not be used at all in marketing. Or, the same words may be used, but in very different ways. It's important to know how your field uses vocabulary and what is meant by certain words and phrases. Watch this video to see a few strategies for learning the specialized vocabulary for your field.

Read the text, paying attention to any specialized terminology you find in the text. (TIP: They are often bolded or italicized.) Then complete the activity below to help you master the specialized terminology for this subject.

The Neurological Exam 
A man arrives at the hospital after feeling faint and complaining of a "pins-and-needles" feeling all along one side of his body. The most likely explanation is that he has suffered a stroke, which has caused a loss of oxygen to a particular part of the central nervous system (CNS). The problem is finding where in the entire nervous system the stroke has occurred. By checking reflexes, sensory responses, and motor control, a health care provider can focus on what abilities the patient may have lost as a result of the stroke and can use this information to determine where the injury occurred. In the emergency department of the hospital, this kind of rapid assessment of neurological function is key to treating trauma to the nervous system. In the classroom, the neurological exam is a valuable tool for learning the anatomy and physiology of the nervous system because it allows you to relate the functions of the system to particular locations in the nervous system.


As a student of anatomy and physiology, you may be planning to go into an allied health field, perhaps nursing or physical therapy. You could be in the emergency department treating a patient such as the one just described. An important part of this course is to understand the nervous system. This can be especially challenging because you need to learn about the nervous system using your own nervous system. The first chapter in this unit about the nervous system began with a quote: "If the human brain were simple enough for us to understand, we would be too simple to understand it". However, you are being asked to understand aspects of it. A healthcare provider can pinpoint problems with the nervous system in minutes by running through the series of tasks to test neurological function that are described in this chapter. You can use the same approach, though not as quickly, to learn about neurological function and its relationship to the structures of the nervous system.  Nervous tissue is different from other tissues in that it is not classified into separate tissue types. It does contain two types of cells, neurons and glia, but it is all just nervous tissue. White matter and gray matter are not types of nervous tissue, but indications of different specializations within the nervous tissue. However, not all nervous tissue performs the same function. Furthermore, specific functions are not wholly localized to individual brain structures in the way that other bodily functions occur strictly within specific organs. In the CNS, we must consider the connections between cells over broad areas, not just the function of cells in one particular nucleus or region. In a broad sense, the nervous system is responsible for the majority of electrochemical signaling in the body, but the use of those signals is different in various regions.


The nervous system is made up of the brain and spinal cord as the central organs, and the ganglia and nerves as organs in the periphery. The brain and spinal cord can be thought of as a collection of smaller organs, most of which would be the nuclei (such as the oculomotor nuclei), but white matter structures play an important role (such as the corpus callosum). Studying the nervous system requires an understanding of the varied physiology of the nervous system. For example, the hypothalamus plays a very different role than the visual cortex.

The neurological exam provides a way to elicit behavior that represents those varied functions. The neurological exam is a clinical assessment tool used to determine what specific parts of the CNS are affected by damage or disease. It can be performed in a short time – sometimes as quickly as 5 minutes – to establish neurological function. In the emergency department, this rapid assessment can make the difference with respect to proper treatment and the extent of recovery that is possible.

The exam is a series of subtests separated into five major sections. The first of these is the mental status exam, which assesses the higher cognitive functions such as memory, orientation, and language. Then there is the cranial nerve exam, which tests the function of the 12 cranial nerves and, therefore, the central and peripheral structures associated with them. The cranial nerve exam tests the sensory and motor functions of each of the nerves, as applicable. Two major sections, the sensory exam and the motor exam, test the sensory and motor functions associated with spinal nerves. Finally, the coordination exam tests the ability to perform complex and coordinated movements. The gait exam, which is often considered a sixth major exam, specifically assesses the motor function of walking and can be considered part of the coordination exam because walking is a coordinated movement.

Neuroanatomy and the Neurological Exam

Localization of function is the concept that circumscribed locations are responsible for specific functions. The neurological exam highlights this relationship. For example, the cognitive functions that are assessed in the mental status exam are based on functions in the cerebrum, mostly in the cerebral cortex. Several of the subtests examine language function. Deficits in neurological function uncovered by these examinations usually point to damage to the left cerebral cortex. In the majority of individuals, language function is localized to the left hemisphere between the superior temporal lobe and the posterior frontal lobe, including the intervening connections through the inferior parietal lobe. The five major sections of the neurological exam are related to the major regions of the CNS (Figure 16.2). The mental status exam assesses functions related to the cerebrum. The cranial nerve exam is for the nerves that connect to the diencephalon and brain stem (as well as the olfactory connections to the forebrain). The coordination exam and the related gait exam primarily assess the functions of the cerebellum. The motor and sensory exams are associated with the spinal cord and its connections through the spinal nerves. This figure shows a picture of the brain connected to the spinal cord.

Anatomical parts of a brain

Figure 16.2 Anatomical Underpinnings of the Neurological Exam 

The different regions of the CNS relate to the major sections of the neurological exam: the mental status exam, cranial nerve exam, sensory exam, motor exam, and coordination exam (including the gait exam). Part of the power of the neurological exam is this link between structure and function. Testing the various functions represented in the exam allows an accurate estimation of where the nervous system may be damaged. Consider the patient described in the chapter introduction. In the emergency department, he is given a quick exam to find where the deficit may be localized. Knowledge of where the damage occurred will lead to the most effective therapy.

In rapid succession, he is asked to smile, raise his eyebrows, stick out his tongue, and shrug his shoulders. The doctor tests muscular strength by providing resistance against his arms and legs while he tries to lift them. With his eyes closed, he has to indicate when he feels the tip of a pen touch his legs, arms, fingers, and face. He follows the tip of a pen as the doctor moves it through the visual field and finally toward his face. A formal mental status exam is not needed at this point; the patient will demonstrate any possible deficits in that area during normal interactions with the interviewer. If cognitive or language deficits are apparent, the interviewer can pursue mental status in more depth. All of this takes place in less than 5 minutes. The patient reports that he feels pins and needles in his left arm and leg, and has trouble feeling the tip of the pen when he is touched on those limbs. This suggests a problem with the sensory systems between the spinal cord and the brain. The emergency department has a lead to follow before a CT scan is performed. He is put on aspirin therapy to limit the possibility of blood clots forming, in case the cause is an embolus – an obstruction such as a blood clot that blocks the flow of blood in an artery or vein.

Instructions: Select the correct terminology for four definitions.

Sources: Excelsior Online Writing Lab,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Last modified: Friday, May 21, 2021, 2:00 PM