The nucleus of the neuron is located in the soma, or cell body. The soma has branching extensions known as dendrites. The neuron is a small information processor, and dendrites serve as input sites where signals are received from other neurons. These signals are transmitted electrically across the soma and down a major extension from the soma known as the axon, which ends at multiple terminal buttons. The terminal buttons contain synaptic vesicles that house neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers of the nervous system.
Axons range in length from a fraction of an inch to several feet. In some axons, glial cells form a fatty substance known as the myelin sheath, which coats the axon and acts as an insulator, increasing the speed at which the signal travels. The myelin sheath is not continuous and there are small gaps that occur down the length of the axon. These gaps in the myelin sheath are known as the Nodes of Ranvier. The myelin sheath is crucial for the normal operation of the neurons within the nervous system: the loss of the insulation it provides can be detrimental to normal function. To understand how this works, let’s consider an example. PKU, a genetic disorder discussed earlier, causes a reduction in myelin and abnormalities in white matter cortical and subcortical structures. The disorder is associated with a variety of issues including severe cognitive deficits, exaggerated reflexes, and seizures (Anderson & Leuzzi, 2010; Huttenlocher, 2000). Another disorder, multiple sclerosis (MS), an autoimmune disorder, involves a large- scale loss of the myelin sheath on axons throughout the nervous system. The resulting interference in the electrical signal prevents the quick transmittal of information by neurons and can lead to a number of symptoms, such as dizziness, fatigue, loss of motor control, and sexual dysfunction. While some treatments may help to modify the course of the disease and manage certain symptoms, there is currently no known cure for multiple sclerosis.
In healthy individuals, the neuronal signal moves rapidly down the axon to the terminal buttons, where synaptic vesicles release neurotransmitters into the synaptic cleft (Figure 3.9). The synaptic cleft is a very small space between two neurons and is an important site where communication between neurons occurs. Once neurotransmitters are released into the synaptic cleft, they travel across it and bind with corresponding receptors on the dendrite of an adjacent neuron. Receptors, proteins on the cell surface where neurotransmitters attach, vary in shape, with different shapes “matching” different neurotransmitters.
How does a neurotransmitter “know” which receptor to bind to? The neurotransmitter and the receptor have what is referred to as a lock-and-key relationship—specific neurotransmitters fit specific receptors similar to how a key fits a lock. The neurotransmitter binds to any receptor that it fits.
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Figure 3.9 (a) The synaptic cleft is the space between the terminal button of one neuron and the dendrite of another neuron. (b) In this pseudo-colored image from a scanning electron microscope, a terminal button (green) has been opened to reveal the synaptic vesicles (orange and blue) inside. Each vesicle contains about 10,000 neurotransmitter molecules. (credit b: modification of work by Tina Carvalho, NIH-NIGMS; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)
Now that we have learned about the basic structures of the neuron and the role that these structures play in neuronal communication, let’s take a closer look at the signal itself—how it moves through the neuron and then jumps to the next neuron, where the process is repeated.
We begin at the neuronal membrane. The neuron exists in a fluid environment—it is surrounded by extracellular fluid and contains intracellular fluid (i.e., cytoplasm). The neuronal membrane keeps these two fluids separate—a critical role because the electrical signal that passes through the neuron depends on the intra- and extracellular fluids being electrically different. This difference in charge across the membrane, called the membrane potential, provides energy for the signal.
The electrical charge of the fluids is caused by charged molecules (ions) dissolved in the fluid. The semipermeable nature of the neuronal membrane somewhat restricts the movement of these charged molecules, and, as a result, some of the charged particles tend to become more concentrated either inside or outside the cell.
Between signals, the neuron membrane’s potential is held in a state of readiness, called the resting potential. Like a rubber band stretched out and waiting to spring into action, ions line up on either side of the cell membrane, ready to rush across the membrane when the neuron goes active and the membrane opens its gates (i.e., a sodium-potassium pump that allows movement of ions across the membrane). Ions in high-concentration areas are ready to move to low-concentration areas, and positive ions are ready to move to areas with a negative charge.
In the resting state, sodium (Na+) is at higher concentrations outside the cell, so it will tend to move into the cell. Potassium (K+), on the other hand, is more concentrated inside the cell, and will tend to move out of the cell (Figure 3.10). In addition, the inside of the cell is slightly negatively charged compared to the outside. This provides an additional force on sodium, causing it to move into the cell.
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Figure 3.10 At resting potential, Na+ (blue pentagons) is more highly concentrated outside the cell in the extracellular fluid (shown in blue), whereas K+ (purple squares) is more highly concentrated near the membrane in the cytoplasm or intracellular fluid. Other molecules, such as chloride ions (yellow circles) and negatively charged proteins (brown squares), help contribute to a positive net charge in the extracellular fluid and a negative net charge in the intracellular fluid.
From this resting potential state, the neuron receives a signal and its state changes abruptly (Figure 3.11). When a neuron receives signals at the dendrites—due to neurotransmitters from an adjacent neuron binding to its receptors—small pores, or gates, open on the neuronal membrane, allowing Na+ ions, propelled by both charge and concentration differences, to move into the cell. With this influx of positive ions, the internal charge of the cell becomes more positive. If that charge reaches a certain level, called the threshold of excitation, the neuron becomes active and the action potential begins.
Many additional pores open, causing a massive influx of Na+ ions and a huge positive spike in the membrane potential, the peak action potential. At the peak of the spike, the sodium gates close and the potassium gates open. As positively charged potassium ions leave, the cell quickly begins repolarization. At first, it hyperpolarizes, becoming slightly more negative than the resting potential, and then it levels off, returning to the resting potential.
Figure 3.11 During the action potential, the electrical charge across the membrane changes dramatically.
This positive spike constitutes the action potential: the electrical signal that typically moves from the cell body down the axon to the axon terminals. The electrical signal moves down the axon with the impulses jumping in a leapfrog fashion between the Nodes of Ranvier. The Nodes of Ranvier are natural gaps in the myelin sheath. At each point, some of the sodium ions that enter the cell diffuse to the next section of the
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