The Neurological Exam

Chapter Review

16.1 Overview of the Neurological Exam

The neurological exam is a clinical assessment tool to determine the extent of function from the nervous system. It is divided into five major sections that each deal with a specific region of the CNS. The mental status exam is concerned with the cerebrum and assesses higher functions such as memory, language, and emotion. The cranial nerve exam tests the functions of all of the cranial nerves and, therefore, their connections to the CNS through the forebrain and brain stem. The sensory and motor exams assess those functions as they relate to the spinal cord, as well as the combination of the functions in spinal reflexes. The coordination exam targets cerebellar function in coordinated movements, including those functions associated with gait.

Damage to and disease of the nervous system lead to loss of function. The location of the injury will correspond to the functional loss, as suggested by the principle of localization of function. The neurological exam provides the opportunity for a clinician to determine where damage has occurred on the basis of the function that is lost. Damage from acute injuries such as strokes may result in specific functions being lost, whereas broader effects in infection or developmental disorders may result in general losses across an entire section of the neurological exam.

16.4 The Sensory and Motor Exams

The sensory and motor exams assess function related to the spinal cord and the nerves connected to it. Sensory functions are associated with the dorsal regions of the spinal cord, whereas motor function is associated with the ventral side. Localizing damage to the spinal cord is related to assessments of the peripheral projections mapped to dermatomes.

Sensory tests address the various submodalities of the somatic senses: touch, temperature, vibration, pain, and proprioception. Results of the subtests can point to trauma in the spinal cord gray matter, white matter, or even in connections to the cerebral cortex.

Motor tests focus on the function of the muscles and the connections of the descending motor pathway. Muscle tone and strength are tested for upper and lower extremities. Input to the muscles comes from the descending cortical input of upper motor neurons and the direct innervation of lower motor neurons.

Reflexes can either be based on deep stimulation of tendons or superficial stimulation of the skin. The presence of reflexive contractions helps to differentiate motor disorders between the upper and lower motor neurons. The specific signs associated with motor disorders can establish the difference further, based on the type of paralysis, the state of muscle tone, and specific indicators such as pronator drift or the Babinski sign.

16.5 The Coordination and Gait Exams

The cerebellum is an important part of motor function in the nervous system. It apparently plays a role in procedural learning, which would include motor skills such as riding a bike or throwing a football. The basis for these roles is likely to be tied into the role the cerebellum plays as a comparator for voluntary movement.

The motor commands from the cerebral hemispheres travel along the corticospinal pathway, which passes through the pons. Collateral branches of these fibers synapse on neurons in the pons, which then project into the cerebellar cortex through the middle cerebellar peduncles. Ascending sensory feedback, entering through the inferior cerebellar peduncles, provides information about motor performance. The cerebellar cortex compares the command to the actual performance and can adjust the descending input to compensate for any mismatch. The output from deep cerebellar nuclei projects through the superior cerebellar peduncles to initiate descending signals from the red nucleus to the spinal cord.

The primary role of the cerebellum in relation to the spinal cord is through the spinocerebellum; it controls posture and gait with significant input from the vestibular system. Deficits in cerebellar function result in ataxias, or a specific kind of movement disorder. The root cause of the ataxia may be the sensory input—either the proprioceptive input from the spinal cord or the equilibrium input from the vestibular system, or direct damage to the cerebellum by stroke, trauma, hereditary factors, or toxins.