Electrophysiology of Neurons


When you have completed this section, you should be able to

  • explain why a cell has an electrical charge difference (voltage) across its membrane;
  • explain how stimulation of a neuron causes a local electrical change in its membrane;
  • explain how local electrical changes generate a nerve signal; and
  • explain how the nerve signal is transmitted down an axon.

The nervous system has intrigued scientists and philosophers since ancient times. The Roman physician Galen thought that the brain pumped a vapor called psychic pneuma through hollow nerves and squirted it into the muscles to make them contract. The French philosopher René Descartes still argued for this theory in the seventeenth century. It finally fell out of favor in the eighteenth century, when Luigi Galvani discovered the role of electricity in muscle contraction. When microscopes and histological staining methods were better developed, the Spanish histologist Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934) was able, with great effort, to trace the course of nerve fibers through tissue sections. He demonstrated that the nervous pathway was not a continuous "wire" or tube, but a series of separate cells separated by synapses. His theory, now called the neuron doctrine, suggested another direction for research—how do neurons communicate? The two key issues in neurophysiology are (1) How does a neuron generate an electrical signal and (2) How does it transmit a meaningful message to the next cell? These are the questions to which this section and the next are addressed.

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Essentials of Human Physiology

Essentials of Human Physiology

This ebook provides an introductory explanation of the workings of the human body, with an effort to draw connections between the body systems and explain their interdependencies. A framework for the book is homeostasis and how the body maintains balance within each system. This is intended as a first introduction to physiology for a college-level course.

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