A hallmark of nerve cells is their excitable membrane. Nerve cells respond to electrical, chemical, or mechanical stimuli. Two types of physicochemical disturbances are produced: local, nonpropagated potentials called, depending on their location, synaptic, generator, or electrotonic potentials; and propagated potentials, the action potentials (or nerve impulses). Action potentials are the primary electrical responses of neurons and other excitable tissues, and they are the main form of communication within the nervous system. They are due to changes in the conduction of ions across the cell membrane. The electrical events in neurons are rapid, being measured in milliseconds (ms); and the potential changes are small, being measured in millivolts (mV).
The impulse is normally transmitted (conducted) along the axon to its termination. Nerves are not “telephone wires” that transmit impulses passively; conduction of nerve impulses, although rapid, is much slower than that of electricity. Nerve tissue is in fact a relatively poor passive conductor, and it would take a potential of many volts to produce a signal of a fraction of a volt at the other end of a meter-long axon in the absence of active processes in the nerve. Instead, conduction is an active, self-propagating process, and the impulse moves along the nerve at a constant amplitude and velocity. The process is often compared to what happens when a match is applied to one end of a trail of gunpowder; by igniting the powder particles immediately in front of it, the flame moves steadily down the trail to its end as it is extinguished in its wake.
RESTING MEMBRANE POTENTIAL
When two electrodes are connected through a suitable amplifier and placed on the surface of a single axon, no potential difference is observed. However, if one electrode is inserted into the interior of the cell, a constant potential difference is observed, with the inside negative relative to the outside of the cell at rest. A membrane potential results from separation of positive and negative charges across the cell membrane (Figure 4–5).
A membrane potential results from separation of positive and negative charges across the cell membrane. The excess of positive charges (red circles) outside the cell and negative charges (blue circles) inside the cell at rest represents a small fraction of the total number of ions present. (Reproduced with permission from Kandel ER, Schwartz JH, Jessell TM, Siegelbaum SA, Hudspeth AJ (editors): Principles of Neural Science, 5th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2013.)
In order for a potential difference to be present across a membrane lipid bilayer, two conditions must be met. First, there must be an unequal distribution of ions of one or more species across the membrane (ie, a concentration gradient). Second, the membrane must be permeable to one or more of these ion species. The permeability is provided by the existence of channels or pores in the bilayer; these channels are usually permeable to a single species of ions. The resting membrane potential represents an equilibrium situation at which the driving force for the membrane-permeant ions down their concentration gradients across the membrane is equal and opposite to the driving force for these ions down their electrical gradients.
In neurons, the concentration of K+ is much higher inside than outside the cell, while the reverse is the case for Na+. This concentration difference is established by Na, K ATPase. The outward K+ concentration gradient results in passive movement of K+ out of the cell when K+-selective channels are open. Similarly, the inward Na+ concentration gradient results in passive movement of Na+ into the cell when Na+-selective channels are open.
In neurons, the resting membrane potential is usually about –70 mV, which is close to the equilibrium potential for K+ (step 1 in Figure 4–6). Because there are more open K+ channels than Na+ channels at rest, the membrane permeability to K+ is greater. Consequently, the intracellular and extracellular K+ concentrations are the prime determinants of the resting membrane potential, which is therefore close to the equilibrium potential for K+. Steady ion leaks cannot continue forever without eventually dissipating the ion gradients. This is prevented by the Na, K ATPase, which actively moves Na+ and K+ against their electrochemical gradients.
Changes in membrane potential and relative membrane permeability to Na+ and K+ during an action potential. Steps 1 through 7 are detailed in the text. These changes in threshold for activation (excitability) are correlated with the phases of the action potential. (Modified with permission from Silverthorn DU: Human Physiology: An Integrated Approach, 5th ed. Pearson, 2010.)
IONIC FLUXES DURING THE ACTION POTENTIAL
The cell membranes of nerves, like those of other cells, contain many different types of ion channels. Some of these are voltage-gated and others are ligand-gated. It is the behavior of these channels, and particularly Na+ and K+ channels, that explains the electrical events in neurons.
The changes in membrane conductance of Na+ and K+ that occur during the action potentials are shown by steps 1 through 7 in Figure 4–6. The conductance of an ion is the reciprocal of its electrical resistance in the membrane and is a measure of the membrane permeability to that ion. In response to a depolarizing stimulus, some of the voltage-gated Na+ channels open and Na+ enters the cell and the membrane is brought to its threshold potential (step 2) and the voltage-gated Na+ channels overwhelm the K+ and other channels. The entry of Na+ causes the opening of more voltage-gated Na+ channels and further depolarization, setting up a positive feedback loop. The rapid upstroke in the membrane potential ensues (step 3). The membrane potential moves toward the equilibrium potential for Na+ (+60 mV) but does not reach it during the action potential (step 4), primarily because the increase in Na+ conductance is short-lived. The Na+ channels rapidly enter a closed state called the inactivated state and remain in this state for a few milliseconds before returning to the resting state, when they again can be activated. In addition, the direction of the electrical gradient for Na+ is reversed during the overshoot because the membrane potential is reversed, and this limits Na+ influx; also the voltage-gated K+ channels open. These factors contribute to repolarization. The opening of voltage-gated K+ channels is slower and more prolonged than the opening of the Na+ channels, and consequently, much of the increase in K+ conductance comes after the increase in Na+ conductance (step 5). The net movement of positive charge out of the cell due to K+ efflux at this time helps complete the process of repolarization. The slow return of the K+ channels to the closed state also explains the after-hyperpolarization (step 6), followed by a return to the resting membrane potential (step 7). Thus, voltage-gated K+ channels bring the action potential to an end and cause closure of their gates through a negative feedback process. Figure 4–7 shows the sequential feedback control in voltage-gated K+ and Na+ channels during the action potential.
Feedback control in voltage-gated ion channels in the membrane. A) Na+ channels exert positive feedback. B) K+ channels exert negative feedback. PNa, PK is permeability to Na+ and K+, respectively. (Reproduced with permission from Widmaier EP, Raff H, Strang KT: Vander’s Human Physiology. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2008.)
Decreasing the external Na+ concentration reduces the size of the action potential but has little effect on the resting membrane potential. The lack of much effect on the resting membrane potential would be predicted, since the permeability of the membrane to Na+ at rest is relatively low. In contrast, since the resting membrane potential is close to the equilibrium potential for K+, changes in the external concentration of this ion can have major effects on the resting membrane potential. If the extracellular level of K+ is increased (hyperkalemia), the resting potential moves closer to the threshold for eliciting an action potential, thus the neuron becomes more excitable. If the extracellular level of K+ is decreased (hypokalemia), the membrane potential is reduced and the neuron is hyperpolarized.
Although Na+ enters the nerve cell and K+ leaves it during the action potential, very few ions actually move across the membrane. It has been estimated that only 1 in 100,000 K+ ions cross the membrane to change the membrane potential from +30 mV (peak of the action potential) to –70 mV (resting potential). Significant differences in ion concentrations can be measured only after prolonged, repeated stimulation.
Other ions, notably Ca2+, can affect the membrane potential through both channel movement and membrane interactions. A decrease in extracellular Ca2+ concentration increases the excitability of nerve and muscle cells by decreasing the amount of depolarization necessary to initiate the changes in the Na+ and K+ conductance that produce the action potential. Conversely, an increase in extracellular Ca2+ concentration can stabilize the membrane by decreasing excitability.
ALL-OR-NONE ACTION POTENTIALS
It is possible to determine the minimal intensity of stimulating current (threshold intensity) that, acting for a given duration, will just produce an action potential. The threshold intensity varies with the duration; with weak stimuli it is long, and with strong stimuli it is short. The relation between the strength and the duration of a threshold stimulus is called the strength–duration curve. Slowly rising currents fail to fire the nerve because the nerve adapts to the applied stimulus, a process called adaptation.
Once threshold intensity is reached, a full-fledged action potential is produced. Further increases in the intensity of a stimulus produce no increment or other change in the action potential as long as the other experimental conditions remain constant. The action potential fails to occur if the stimulus is subthreshold in magnitude, and it occurs with constant amplitude and form regardless of the strength of the stimulus if the stimulus is at or above threshold intensity. The action potential is therefore all-or-none in character.
ELECTROTONIC POTENTIALS, LOCAL RESPONSE, & FIRING LEVEL
Although subthreshold stimuli do not produce an action potential, they do have an effect on the membrane potential. This can be demonstrated by placing recording electrodes within a few millimeters of a stimulating electrode and applying subthreshold stimuli of fixed duration. Application of such currents leads to a localized depolarizing potential change that rises sharply and decays exponentially with time. The magnitude of this response drops off rapidly as the distance between the stimulating and recording electrodes is increased. Conversely, an anodal current produces a hyperpolarizing potential change of similar duration. These potential changes are called electrotonic potentials. As the strength of the current is increased, the response is greater due to the increasing addition of a local response of the membrane (Figure 4–8). Finally, at 7–15 mV of depolarization (potential of –55 mV), the firing level (threshold potential) is reached and an action potential occurs.
Electrotonic potentials and local response. The changes in the membrane potential of a neuron following application of stimuli of 0.2, 0.4, 0.6, 0.8, and 1.0 times threshold intensity are shown superimposed on the same time scale. The responses below the horizontal line are those recorded near the anode, and the responses above the line are those recorded near the cathode. The stimulus of threshold intensity was repeated twice. Once it caused a propagated action potential (top line), and once it did not.
CHANGES IN EXCITABILITY DURING ELECTROTONIC POTENTIALS & THE ACTION POTENTIAL
During the action potential, as well as during electrotonic potentials and the local response, the threshold of the neuron to stimulation changes (Figure 4–6). Hyperpolarizing responses elevate the threshold, and depolarizing potentials lower it as they move the membrane potential closer to the firing level. During the local response, the threshold is lowered, but during the rising and much of the falling phases of the spike potential, the neuron is refractory to stimulation. This refractory period is divided into an absolute refractory period, corresponding to the period from the time the firing level is reached until repolarization is about one-third complete, and a relative refractory period, lasting from this point to the start of after-depolarization. During the absolute refractory period, no stimulus, no matter how strong, will excite the nerve. However, during the relative refractory period, stronger than normal stimuli can cause excitation. These changes in threshold are correlated with the phases of the action potential in Figure 4–6.
CONDUCTION OF THE ACTION POTENTIAL
The nerve cell membrane is polarized at rest, with positive charges lined up along the outside of the membrane and negative charges along the inside. During the action potential, this polarity is abolished and for a brief period is actually reversed (Figure 4–9). Positive charges from the membrane ahead of and behind the action potential flow into the area of negativity represented by the action potential (“current sink”). By drawing off positive charges, this flow decreases the polarity of the membrane ahead of the action potential. Such electrotonic depolarization initiates a local response, and when the firing level is reached, a propagated response occurs that in turn electrotonically depolarizes the membrane in front of it.
Local current flow (movement of positive charges) around an impulse in an axon. Top: Unmyelinated axon. Bottom: Myelinated axon. Positive charges from the membrane ahead of and behind the action potential flow into the area of negativity represented by the action potential (“current sink”). In myelinated axons, depolarization appears to “jump” from one node of Ranvier to the next (saltatory conduction).
The spatial distribution of ion channels along the axon plays a key role in the initiation and regulation of the action potential. Voltage-gated Na+ channels are highly concentrated in the nodes of Ranvier and the initial segment in myelinated neurons. The number of Na+ channels per square micrometer of membrane in myelinated mammalian neurons has been estimated to be 50–75 in the cell body, 350–500 in the initial segment, less than 25 on the surface of the myelin, 2000–12,000 at the nodes of Ranvier, and 20–75 at the axon terminals. Along the axons of unmyelinated neurons, the number is about 110. In many myelinated neurons, the Na+ channels are flanked by K+ channels that are involved in repolarization.
Conduction in myelinated axons depends on a similar pattern of circular current flow as described above. However, myelin is an effective insulator, and current flow through it is negligible. Instead, depolarization in myelinated axons travels from one node of Ranvier to the next, with the current sink at the active node serving to electrotonically depolarize the node ahead of the action potential to the firing level (Figure 4–9). This “jumping” of depolarization from node to node is called saltatory conduction. It is a rapid process that allows myelinated axons to conduct up to 50 times faster than the fastest unmyelinated fibers.
ORTHODROMIC & ANTIDROMIC CONDUCTION
An axon can conduct in either direction. When an action potential is initiated in the middle of the axon, two impulses traveling in opposite directions are set up by electrotonic depolarization on either side of the initial current sink. In the natural situation, impulses pass in one direction only, ie, from synaptic junctions or receptors along axons to their termination. Such conduction is called orthodromic. Conduction in the opposite direction is called antidromic. Because synapses, unlike axons, permit conduction in one direction only, an antidromic impulse will fail to pass the first synapse they encounter and die out at that point.