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The plasma membrane of neurons, like all other cells, has an unequal distribution of ions and electrical charges between the two sides of the membrane. The outside of the membrane has a positive charge, inside has a negative charge. This charge difference is a resting potential and is measured in millivolts. Passage of ions across the cell membrane passes the electrical charge along the cell. The voltage potential is -65mV (millivolts) of a cell at rest (resting potential). Resting potential results from differences between sodium and potassium positively charged ions and negatively charged ions in the cytoplasm. Sodium ions are more concentrated outside the membrane, while potassium ions are more concentrated inside the membrane. This imbalance is maintained by the active transport of ions to reset the membrane known as the sodium potassium pump. The sodium-potassium pump maintains this unequal concentration by actively transporting ions against their concentration gradients.
Transmission of an action potential. The above image is from http://eleceng.ukc.ac.uk/~sd5/pics/research/big/actpot.gif.
Changed polarity of the membrane, the action potential, results in propagation of the nerve impulse along the membrane. An action potential is a temporary reversal of the electrical potential along the membrane for a few milliseconds. Sodium gates and potassium gates open in the membrane to allow their respective ions to cross. Sodium and potassium ions reverse positions by passing through membrane protein channel gates that can be opened or closed to control ion passage. Sodium crosses first. At the height of the membrane potential reversal, potassium channels open to allow potassium ions to pass to the outside of the membrane. Potassium crosses second, resulting in changed ionic distributions, which must be reset by the continuously running sodium-potassium pump. Eventually enough potassium ions pass to the outside to restore the membrane charges to those of the original resting potential.The cell begins then to pump the ions back to their original sides of the membrane.
The action potential begins at one spot on the membrane, but spreads to adjacent areas of the membrane, propagating the message along the length of the cell membrane. After passage of the action potential, there is a brief period, the refractory period, during which the membrane cannot be stimulated. This prevents the message from being transmitted backward along the membrane.
Steps in an Action Potential
The junction between a nerve cell and another cell is called a synapse. Messages travel within the neuron as an electrical action potential. The space between two cells is known as the synaptic cleft. To cross the synaptic cleft requires the actions of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are stored in small synaptic vessicles clustered at the tip of the axon.
Excitatory Synapse from the Central Nervous System (TEM x27,360). This image is copyright Dennis Kunkel at www.DennisKunkel.com, used with permission.
Arrival of the action potential causes some of the vesicles to move to the end of the axon and discharge their contents into the synaptic cleft. Released neurotransmitters diffuse across the cleft, and bind to receptors on the other cell's membrane, causing ion channels on that cell to open. Some neurotransmitters cause an action potential, others are inhibitory.
Neurotransmitters tend to be small molecules, some are even hormones. The time for neurotransmitter action is between 0,5 and 1 millisecond. Neurotransmitters are either destroyed by specific enzymes in the synaptic cleft, diffuse out of the cleft, or are reabsorbed by the cell. More than 30 organic molecules are thought to act as neurotransmitters. The neurotransmitters cross the cleft, binding to receptor molecules on the next cell, prompting transmission of the message along that cell's membrane. Acetylcholine is an example of a neurotransmitter, as is norepinephrine, although each acts in different responses. Once in the cleft, neurotransmitters are active for only a short time. Enzymes in the cleft inactivate the neurotransmitters. Inactivated neurotransmitters are taken back into the axon and recycled.
Diseases that affect the function of signal transmission can have serious consequences. Parkinson's disease has a deficiency of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Progressive death of brain cells increases this deficit, causing tremors, rigidity and unstable posture. L-dopa is a chemical related to dopamine that eases some of the symptoms (by acting as a substitute neurotransmitter) but cannot reverse the progression of the disease.
The bacterium Clostridium tetani produces a toxin that prevents the release of GABA. GABA is important in control of skeletal muscles. Without this control chemical, regulation of muscle contraction is lost; it can be fatal when it effects the muscles used in breathing.
Clostridium botulinum produces a toxin found in improperly canned foods. This toxin causes the progressive relaxation of muscles, and can be fatal. A wide range of drugs also operate in the synapses: cocaine, LSD, caffeine, and insecticides.