The Cellular Organization of Neurons

Neurons are structurally complex cells, with long fibrous extensions that are specialized to receive and transmit information. This complexity can be appreciated by examining the structure of a motor neuron, shown schematically in Figure 1-2a. The cell body, or soma, of the motor neuron where the nucleus resides is only about 20-30 |im in diameter in the case of motor neurons involved in the patellar reflex. The soma is only a small part of the neuron, however, and it gives rise to a tangle of profusely branching processes called dendrites, which can spread out for several millimeters within the spinal cord. The dendrites are specialized to receive signals passed along as the result of the activity of other neurons, such as the sensory neurons of the patellar reflex, and to funnel those signals to the soma. The soma also gives rise to a thin fiber, the axon, that is specialized to transmit signals over long distances. In the case of the motor neuron in the patellar reflex, the axon extends all the way from the spinal cord to the quadriceps muscle, a distance of approximately 1 meter. As shown in Figure 1-2b, the sensory neuron of the patellar reflex is structurally simpler than the motor neuron. Its soma, which is located just outside the spinal cord in the dorsal root ganglion, gives rise to only a single nerve fiber, the axon. The axon splits into two branches shortly after it exits the dorsal root ganglion: one branch extends away from the spinal cord to contact the muscle cells of the quadriceps muscle, and the other branch passes into the spinal cord to contact the quadriceps motor neurons. The axon of the sensory neuron carries the signal generated by muscle stretch from the muscle into the spinal cord. Because the sensory

(a) Motor neuron within spinal cord

(a) Motor neuron within spinal cord

(b) Sensory neuron just outside spinal cord
Figure 1-2 Structures of single neurons involved in the patellar reflex.

neuron receives its input signal from the sensory stimulus (muscle stretch) at the peripheral end of the axon instead of from other neurons, it lacks the dendrites seen in the motor neuron.

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