Electrical Signals in Neurons

To transmit information rapidly over long distances, neurons produce active electrical signals, which travel along the axons that make up the transmission paths. The electrical signal arises from changes in the electrical voltage difference across the cell membrane, which is called the membrane potential.

Although this transmembrane voltage is small typically less than a tenth of a volt it is central to the functioning of the nervous system. Information is transmitted and processed by neurons by means of changes in the membrane potential.

What does the electrical signal that carries the message along the sensory nerve fiber in the patellar reflex look like? To answer this question, we must measure the membrane potential of the sensory neuron by placing an ultrafine voltage-sensing probe, called an intracellular microelectrode, inside the sensory nerve fiber, as illustrated in Figure 1-3. A voltmeter is connected to measure the voltage difference between the tip of the intracellular microelectrode (point a in the figure) and a reference point in the extracellular space (point b). When the microelectrode is located outside the sensory neuron, both points a and b are in the extracellular space, and the voltmeter therefore records no voltage difference (Figure 1-3b). When the tip of the probe is inserted inside the sensory neuron, however, the voltmeter measures an electrical potential between points a and b, representing the voltage difference between the inside and the outside of the neuron that is, the membrane potential of the neuron. As shown in Figure 1-3b, the inside of the sensory nerve fiber is negative with respect to the outside by about seventy-thousandths of a volt (1 millivolt, abbreviated mV, equals one-thousandth of a volt). Because the potential outside the cell is our reference point and the inside is negative with respect to the outside, the membrane potential is represented as a negative number, i.e., -70 mV.

As long as the sensory neuron is not stimulated by stretching the muscle, the membrane potential remains constant at this resting value. For this reason, the unstimulated membrane potential is known as the resting potential of the cell. When the muscle is stretched, however, the membrane potential of the sensory neuron undergoes a dramatic change, as shown in Figure 1-3b. After a delay that depends on the distance of the recording site from the muscle, the membrane potential suddenly moves in the positive direction, transiently reverses sign for a brief period, and then returns to the resting negative level. This transient jump in membrane potential is the action potential the long-distance signal that carries information in the nervous system.

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