Neurons & the Nervous System
The human nervous system consists of billions of nerve cells (or neurons) plus supporting (neuroglial) cells. Neurons are able to respond to stimuli (such as touch, sound, light, and so on), conduct impulses, and communicate with each other (and with other types of cells like muscle cells).
The nucleus of a neuron is located in the cell body. Extending out from the cell body are processes called dendrites and axons. These processes vary in number & relative length but always serve to conduct impulses (with dendrites conducting impulses toward the cell body and axons conducting impulses away from the cell body).
Neurons can respond to stimuli and conduct impulses because a membrane potential is established across the cell membrane. In other words, there is an unequal distribution of ions (charged atoms) on the two sides of a nerve cell membrane. This can be illustrated with a voltmeter:
The membranes of all nerve cells have a potential difference across them, with the cell interior negative with respect to the exterior (a). In neurons, stimuli can alter this potential difference by opening sodium channels in the membrane. For example, neurotransmitters interact specifically with sodium channels (or gates). So
sodium ions flow into the cell, reducing the voltage across the membrane.
Once the potential difference reaches a threshold voltage, the reduced voltage causes hundreds of sodium gates in that region of the membrane to open briefly. Sodium ions flood into the cell, completely depolarizing the membrane (b). This opens more voltage-gated ion channels in the adjacent membrane, and so a wave of depolarization courses along the cell — the action potential.
As the action potential nears its peak, the sodium gates close, and potassium gates open, allowing ions to flow out of the cell to restore the normal potential of the membrane (c) (Gutkin and Ermentrout 2006).
Membranes are polarized or, in other words, exhibit a RESTING MEMBRANE POTENTIAL. This means that there is an unequal distribution of ions (atoms with a positive or negative charge) on the two sides of the nerve cell membrane. This POTENTIAL generally measures about 70 millivolts (with the INSIDE of the membrane negative with respect to the outside). So, the RESTING MEMBRANE POTENTIAL is expressed as -70 mV, and the minus means that the inside is negative relative to (or compared to) the outside. It is called a RESTING potential because it occurs when a membrane is not being stimulated or conducting impulses (in other words, it's resting).