Posted by: Thixia | September 2, 2008

Diagram: How Nerves Work 3 of 6

 

Neural Pathways and Action Potentials

 

Neural pathways

 

The simplest type of neural pathway is a monosynaptic (single connection) reflex pathway, like in the knee-jerk reflex. When the doctor taps a certain spot on your knee with a rubber hammer, receptors send a signal into the spinal cord through a sensory neuron. The sensory neuron passes the message to a motor neuron that controls your leg muscles. Nerve impulses travel down the motor neuron and stimulate the appropriate leg muscle to contract. Nerve impulses also travel to the opposing leg muscle to inhibit contraction so that it relaxes (this pathway involves interneurons). The response is a quick muscular jerk that does not involve your brain. Humans have lots of hardwired reflexes like this, but as tasks become more complex, the pathway “circuitry” gets more complicated and the brain gets involved.

 

nerve cross section

­ Action potentials


We have talked about nerve signals and mentioned that they are electrochemical in nature, but what does that mean?

To understand how neurons transmit signals, we must first look at the structure of the cell membrane. The cell membrane is made of fats or lipids called phospholipids. Each phospholipid has an electrically charged head that sticks near water and two polar tails that avoid water. The phospholipids arrange themselves in a two-layer lipid sandwich with the polar heads sticking into water and the polar tails sticking near each other. In this configuration, they form a barrier that separates the inside of the cell from the outside and that does not permit water-soluble or charged particles (like ions) from moving through it.

 

So how do charged particles get into cells? We’ll find out next.

 

 

 

Concentration gradients and active transport

When you cut an onion at one end of a room, you will eventually smell it at the other end. This is because the onion juice molecules move through the air. Although their motion is random, they generally tend to move from an area of high concentration (the onion) to an area of low concentration (the other end of the room). You also see this behavior when you add a drop of food dye to water — eventually, the dye spreads out through the water. This phenomenon is called diffusion. The driving force for diffusion is a difference in concentration, or concentration gradient. Now, for ions and molecules to move across a membrane, two conditions must be met:

·           There must be a concentration gradient across the membrane.

·           The membrane must be permeable to that particular molecule or ion.

The ion or molecule will move “down” its concentration gradient (from high concentration to low concentration). It is possible to get an ion or molecule to move against its concentration gradient (“uphill”), but this requires energy and is called active transport. The energy for this active transport can come from ATP (the cell’s energy currency) or by coupling the “uphill” transport of this ion or molecule to the “downhill” transport of another ion or molecule on the same carrier (counter-transport or exchange).

 

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