Neuron - Overview


Structure of a typical neuron
Neuron (peripheral nervous system)
Dendrite Soma Axon Nucleus Node of
Ranvier Axon terminal Schwann cell Myelin sheath

A neuron is a specialized type of cell found in the bodies of most animals (all members of the group Eumetazoa). Only sponges and a few other simpler animals have no neurons. The features that define a neuron are electrical excitability and the presence of synapses, which are complex membrane junctions that transmit signals to other cells. The body's neurons, plus the glial cells that give them structural and metabolic support, together constitute the nervous system. In vertebrates, the majority of neurons belong to the central nervous system, but some reside in peripheral ganglia, and many sensory neurons are situated in sensory organs such as the retina and cochlea.

Although neurons are very diverse and there are exceptions to nearly every rule, it is convenient to begin with a schematic description of the structure and function of a "typical" neuron. A typical neuron is divided into three parts: the soma or cell body, dendrites, and axon. The soma is usually compact; the axon and dendrites are filaments that extrude from it. Dendrites typically branch profusely, getting thinner with each branching, and extending their farthest branches a few hundred micrometres from the soma. The axon leaves the soma at a swelling called the axon hillock, and can extend for great distances, giving rise to hundreds of branches. Unlike dendrites, an axon usually maintains the same diameter as it extends. The soma may give rise to numerous dendrites, but never to more than one axon. Synaptic signals from other neurons are received by the soma and dendrites; signals to other neurons are transmitted by the axon. A typical synapse, then, is a contact between the axon of one neuron and a dendrite or soma of another. Synaptic signals may be excitatory or inhibitory. If the net excitation received by a neuron over a short period of time is large enough, the neuron generates a brief pulse called an action potential, which originates at the soma and propagates rapidly along the axon, activating synapses onto other neurons as it goes.

Many neurons fit the foregoing schema in every respect, but there are also exceptions to most parts of it. There are no neurons that lack a soma, but there are neurons that lack dendrites, and others that lack an axon. Furthermore, in addition to the typical axodendritic and axosomatic synapses, there are axoaxonic (axon-to-axon) and dendrodendritic (dendrite-to-dendrite) synapses.

The key to neural function is the synaptic signaling process, which is partly electrical and partly chemical. The electrical aspect depends on properties of the neuron's membrane. Like all animal cells, every neuron is surrounded by a plasma membrane, a bilayer of lipid molecules with many types of protein structures embedded in it. A lipid bilayer is a powerful electrical insulator, but in neurons, many of the protein structures embedded in the membrane are electrically active. These include ion channels that permit electrically charged ions to flow across the membrane, and ion pumps that actively transport ions from one side of the membrane to the other. Most ion channels are permeable only to specific types of ions. Some ion channels are voltage gated, meaning that they can be switched between open and closed states by altering the voltage difference across the membrane. Others are chemically gated, meaning that they can be switched between open and closed states by interactions with chemicals that diffuse through the extracellular fluid. The interactions between ion channels and ion pumps produce a voltage difference across the membrane, typically a bit less than 1/10 of a volt at baseline. This voltage has two functions: first, it provides a power source for an assortment of voltage-dependent protein machinery that is embedded in the membrane; second, it provides a basis for electrical signal transmission between different parts of the membrane.

Neurons communicate by chemical and electrical synapses in a process known as synaptic transmission. The fundamental process that triggers synaptic transmission is the action potential, a propagating electrical signal that is generated by exploiting the electrically excitable membrane of the neuron. This is also known as a wave of depolarization.

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