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An action potential is an all-or-nothing event; it either happens or it does not. The threshold of excitation must be reached for the neuron to “fire” an action potential. As sodium ions rush into the cell, depolarization actually reverses the charge across the membrane form -70mv to +30mV. This change in the membrane potential causes voltage-gated K + channels to open, and K + begins to leave the cell, repolarizing it. At the same time, Na + channels inactivate so no more Na + enters the cell. K + ions continue to leave the cell and the membrane potential returns to the resting potential. At the resting potential, the K + channels close and Na + channels reset. The depolarization of the membrane proceeds in a wave down the length of the axon. It travels in only one direction because the sodium channels have been inactivated and unavailable until the membrane potential is near the resting potential again; at this point they are reset to closed and can be opened again.

An axon    is a tube-like structure that propagates the signal from the cell body to specialized endings called axon terminals. These terminals in turn then synapse with other neurons, muscle, or target organs. When the action potential reaches the axon terminal, this causes the release of neurotransmitter onto the dendrite of another neuron. Neurotransmitters released at axon terminals allow signals to be communicated to these other cells, and the process begins again. Neurons usually have one or two axons, but some neurons do not contain any axons.

Some axons are covered with a special structure called a myelin sheath    , which acts as an insulator to keep the electrical signal from dissipating as it travels down the axon. This insulation is important, as the axon from a human motor neuron can be as long as a meter (3.2 ft)—from the base of the spine to the toes. The myelin sheath is produced by glial cells. Along the axon there are periodic gaps in the myelin sheath. These gaps are called nodes of Ranvier and are sites where the signal is “recharged” as it travels along the axon.

It is important to note that a single neuron does not act alone—neuronal communication depends on the connections that neurons make with one another (as well as with other cells, like muscle cells). Dendrites from a single neuron may receive synaptic contact from many other neurons. For example, dendrites from a Purkinje cell in the cerebellum are thought to receive contact from as many as 200,000 other neurons.

Illustration shows a neuron. The main part of the cell body, called the soma, contains the nucleus. Branch-like dendrites project from three sides of the soma. A long, thin axon projects from the fourth side. The axon branches at the end. The tip of the axon is in close proximity to dendrites of an adjacent nerve cell. The narrow space between the axon and dendrites is called the synapse. Cells called oligodendrocytes are located next to the axon. Projections from the oligodendrocytes wrap around the axon, forming a myelin sheath. The myelin sheath is not continuous, and gaps where the axon is exposed are called nodes of Ranvier.
Neurons contain organelles common to other cells, such as a nucleus and mitochondria. They also have more specialized structures, including dendrites and axons.

Biology in action

Neurogenesis

At one time, scientists believed that people were born with all the neurons they would ever have. Research performed during the last few decades indicates that neurogenesis, the birth of new neurons, continues into adulthood. Neurogenesis was first discovered in songbirds that produce new neurons while learning songs. For mammals, new neurons also play an important role in learning: about 1,000 new neurons develop in the hippocampus (a brain structure involved in learning and memory) each day. While most of the new neurons will die, researchers found that an increase in the number of surviving new neurons in the hippocampus correlated with how well rats learned a new task. Interestingly, both exercise and some antidepressant medications also promote neurogenesis in the hippocampus. Stress has the opposite effect. While neurogenesis is quite limited compared to regeneration in other tissues, research in this area may lead to new treatments for disorders such as Alzheimer’s, stroke, and epilepsy.

How do scientists identify new neurons? A researcher can inject a compound called bromodeoxyuridine (BrdU) into the brain of an animal. While all cells will be exposed to BrdU, BrdU will only be incorporated into the DNA of newly generated cells that are in S phase. A technique called immunohistochemistry can be used to attach a fluorescent label to the incorporated BrdU, and a researcher can use fluorescent microscopy to visualize the presence of BrdU, and thus new neurons, in brain tissue ( [link] ).

In the micrograph, several cells are fluorescently labeled green only. Three cells are labeled red only, and four cells are labeled green and red. The cells labeled green and red are astrocytes, and the cells labeled red are neurons. The neurons are oval and about ten microns long. Astrocytes are slightly larger and irregularly shaped.
This image shows new neurons in a rat hippocampus. New neurons tagged with BrdU glow red in this micrograph. (credit: modification of work by Dr. Maryam Faiz, University of Barcelona)

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Source:  OpenStax, Concepts of biology. OpenStax CNX. Feb 29, 2016 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11487/1.9
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