Neuron action potentials: The creation of a brain signal
- dendrites: receive signals from neighboring neurons (like a radio antenna)
- axon: transmit signals over a distance (like telephone wires)
- axon terminal: transmit signals to other neuron dendrites or tissues (like a radio transmitter)
- myelin sheath: speeds up signal transmission along the axon
Resting membrane potential
- more sodium ions (Na) outside than inside the neuron
- more potassium ions (K) inside than outside the neuron
- The neuron cell membrane is super permeable to potassium ions, and so lots of potassium leaks out of the neuron through potassium leakage channels (holes in the cell wall).
- The neuron cell membrane is partially permeable to sodium ions, so sodium atoms slowly leak into the neuron through sodium leakage channels.
- The cell wants to maintain a negative resting membrane potential, so it has a pump that pumps potassium back into the cell and pumps sodium out of the cell at the same time.
How action potentials work
- Gate m (the activation gate) is normally closed, and opens when the cell starts to get more positive.
- Gate h (the deactivation gate) is normally open, and swings shut when the cells gets too positive.
- Gate n is normally closed, but slowly opens when the cell is depolarized (very positive).
- Deactivated (closed) - at rest, channels are deactivated. The m gate is closed, and does not let sodium ions through.
- Activated (open) - when a current passes through and changes the voltage difference across a membrane, the channel will activate and the m gate will open.
- Inactivated (closed) - as the neuron depolarizes, the h gate swings shut and blocks sodium ions from entering the cell.
- A triggering event occurs that depolarizes the cell body. This signal comes from other cells connecting to the neuron, and it causes positively charged ions to flow into the cell body. Positive ions still flow into the cell to depolarize it, but these ions pass through channels that open when a specific chemical, known as a neurotransmitter, binds to the channel and tells it to open. Neurotransmitters are released by cells near the dendrites, often as the end result of their own action potential! These incoming ions bring the membrane potential closer to 0, which is known as depolarization. An object is polar if there is some difference between more negative and more positive areas. As positive ions flow into the negative cell, that difference, and thus the cell’s polarity, decrease. If the cell body gets positive enough that it can trigger the voltage-gated sodium channels found in the axon, then the action potential will be sent.
- Depolarization - makes the cell less polar (membrane potential gets smaller as ions quickly begin to equalize the concentration gradients) . Voltage-gated sodium channels at the part of the axon closest to the cell body activate, thanks to the recently depolarized cell body. This lets positively charged sodium ions flow into the negatively charged axon, and depolarize the surrounding axon. We can think of the channels opening like dominoes falling down - once one channel opens and lets positive ions in, it sets the stage for the channels down the axon to do the same thing. Though this stage is known as depolarization, the neuron actually swings past equilibrium and becomes positively charged as the action potential passes through!
- Repolarization - brings the cell back to resting potential. The inactivation gates of the sodium channels close, stopping the inward rush of positive ions. At the same time, the potassium channels open. There is much more potassium inside the cell than out, so when these channels open, more potassium exits than comes in. This means the cell loses positively charged ions, and returns back toward its resting state.
- Hyperpolarization - makes the cell more negative than its typical resting membrane potential. As the action potential passes through, potassium channels stay open a little bit longer, and continue to let positive ions exit the neuron. This means that the cell temporarily hyperpolarizes, or gets even more negative than its resting state. As the potassium channels close, the sodium-potassium pump works to reestablish the resting state.
- Absolute refractory period: during this time it is absolutely impossible to send another action potential. The inactivation (h) gates of the sodium channels lock shut for a time, and make it so no sodium will pass through. No sodium means no depolarization, which means no action potential. Absolute refractory periods help direct the action potential down the axon, because only channels further downstream can open and let in depolarizing ions.
- Relative refractory period: during this time, it is really hard to send an action potential. This is the period after the absolute refractory period, when the h gates are open again. However, the cell is still hyperpolarized after sending an action potential. It would take even more positive ions than usual to reach the appropriate depolarization potential than usual. This means that the initial triggering event would have to be bigger than normal in order to send more action potentials along. Relative refractory periods can help us figure how intense a stimulus is - cells in your retina will send signals faster in bright light than in dim light, because the trigger is stronger.
|Graded Potentials||Action Potentials|
|At the dendrites and cell body||At the axon|
|Excitatory or inhibitory||Always excitatory|
|Smaller in size||Larger voltage difference|
|Triggered by input from the outside||Triggered by membrane depolarization|
|Many can happen at once||Only one at a time|
|Can come in different sizes||All-or-none|