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Neurons and glial cells

The nervous system of the common laboratory fly, Drosophila melanogaster , contains around 100,000 neurons, the same number as a lobster. This number compares to 75 million in the mouse and 300 million in the octopus. A human brain contains around 86 billion neurons. Despite these very different numbers, the nervous systems of these animals control many of the same behaviors—from basic reflexes to more complicated behaviors like finding food and courting mates. The ability of neurons to communicate with each other as well as with other types of cells underlies all of these behaviors.

Most neurons share the same cellular components. But neurons are also highly specialized—different types of neurons have different sizes and shapes that relate to their functional roles.

Like other cells, each neuron has a cell body (or soma) that contains a nucleus, smooth and rough endoplasmic reticulum, Golgi apparatus, mitochondria, and other cellular components. Neurons also contain unique structures for receiving and sending the electrical signals that make communication between neurons possible ( [link] ). Dendrites are tree-like structures that extend away from the cell body to receive messages from other neurons at specialized junctions called synapses . Although some neurons do not have any dendrites, most have one or many dendrites.

The bilayer lipid membrane that surrounds a neuron is impermeable to ions. To enter or exit the neuron, ions must pass through ion channels that span the membrane. Some ion channels need to be activated to open and allow ions to pass into or out of the cell. These ion channels are sensitive to the environment and can change their shape accordingly. Ion channels that change their structure in response to voltage changes are called voltage-gated ion channels. The difference in total charge between the inside and outside of the cell is called the membrane potential.

A neuron at rest is negatively charged: the inside of a cell is approximately 70 millivolts more negative than the outside (–70 mV). This voltage is called the resting membrane potential; it is caused by differences in the concentrations of ions inside and outside the cell and the selective permeability created by ion channels. Sodium-potassium pumps in the membrane produce the different ion concentrations inside and outside of the cell by bringing in two K + ions and removing three Na + ions. The actions of this pump are costly: one molecule of ATP is used up for each turn. Up to 50 percent of a neuron’s ATP is used in maintaining its membrane resting potential. Potassium ions (K + ), which are higher inside the cell, move fairly freely out of the neuron through potassium channels; this loss of positive charge produces a net negative charge inside the cell. Sodium ions (Na + ), which are low inside, have a driving force to enter but move less freely. Their channels are voltage dependent and will open when a slight change in the membrane potential triggers them.

A neuron can receive input from other neurons and, if this input is strong enough, send the signal to downstream neurons. Transmission of a signal between neurons is generally carried by a chemical, called a neurotransmitter, which diffuses from the axon of one neuron to the dendrite of a second neuron. When neurotransmitter molecules bind to receptors located on a neuron’s dendrites, the neurotransmitter opens ion channels in the dendrite’s plasma membrane. This opening allows sodium ions to enter the neuron and results in depolarization    of the membrane—a decrease in the voltage across the neuron membrane. Once a signal is received by the dendrite, it then travels passively to the cell body. A large enough signal from neurotransmitters will reach the axon. If it is strong enough (that is, if the threshold of excitation    , a depolarization to around –60mV is reached), then depolarization creates a positive feedback loop: as more Na + ions enter the cell, the axon becomes further depolarized, opening even more sodium channels at further distances from the cell body. This will cause voltage dependent Na + channels further down the axon to open and more positive ions to enter the cell. In the axon, this “signal” will become a self-propagating brief reversal of the resting membrane potential called an action potential    .

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Source:  OpenStax, University of georgia concepts of biology. OpenStax CNX. May 28, 2013 Download for free at https://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11526/1.2
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