Sunday 29 July 2012 at 03:38 am. Used tags: , , , ,


axon terminal; synaptic cleft; dendrite

Structure of a typical chemical synapse

In the nervous system, a synapse is a structure that permits a neuron to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another cell (neural or otherwise). Santiago Ramón y Cajal proposed that neurons are not continuous throughout the body, yet still communicate with each other, an idea known as the neuron doctrine.[1]. The word "synapse" comes from "synaptein", which Sir Charles Scott Sherrington and colleagues coined from the Greek "syn-" ("together") and "haptein" ("to clasp").

Synapses are essential to neuronal function: neurons are cells that are specialized to pass signals to individual target cells, and synapses are the means by which they do so. At a synapse, the plasma membrane of the signal-passing neuron (the presynaptic neuron) comes into close apposition with the membrane of the target (postsynaptic) cell. Both the presynaptic and postsynaptic sites contain extensive arrays of molecular machinery that link the two membranes together and carry out the signaling process. In many synapses, the presynaptic part is located on an axon, but some presynaptic sites are located on a dendrite or soma. Astrocytes also exchange information with the synaptic neurons, responding to synaptic activity and, in turn, regulating synaptic transmission.[2]

There are two fundamentally different types of synapses:

  • In a chemical synapse, the presynaptic neuron releases a chemical called a neurotransmitter that binds to receptors located in the postsynaptic cell, usually embedded in the plasma membrane. The neurotransmitter may initiate an electrical response or a secondary messenger pathway that may either excite or inhibit the postsynaptic neuron.
  • In an electrical synapse, the presynaptic and postsynaptic cell membranes are connected by special channels called gap junctions that are capable of passing electric current, causing voltage changes in the presynaptic cell to induce voltage changes in the postsynaptic cell. The main advantage of an electrical synapse is the rapid transfer of signals from one cell to the next. [3]

Synaptic communication is distinct from ephaptic coupling, in which communication between neurons occurs via indirect electric fields.

The brain and spinal cord are made up of many cells, including neurons and glial cells. Neurons are cells that send and receive electro-chemical signals to and from the brain and nervous system. There are about 100 billion neurons in the brain. There are many more glial cells; they provide support functions for the neurons, and are far more numerous than neurons.

There are many type of neurons. They vary in size from 4 microns (.004 mm) to 100 microns (.1 mm) in diameter. Their length varies from a fraction of an inch to several feet.

Neurons are nerve cells that transmit nerve signals to and from the brain at up to 200 mph. The neuron consists of a cell body (or soma) with branching dendrites (signal receivers) and a projection called an axon, which conduct the nerve signal. At the other end of the axon, the axon terminals transmit the electro-chemical signal across a synapse (the gap between the axon terminal and the receiving cell). The word "neuron" was coined by the German scientist Heinrich Wilhelm Gottfried von Waldeyer-Hartz in 1891 (he also coined the term "chromosome").

The axon, a long extension of a nerve cell, and take information away from the cell body. Bundles of axons are known as nerves or, within the CNS (central nervous system), as nerve tracts or pathways. Dendrites bring information to the cell body.

Myelin coats and insulates the axon (except for periodic breaks called nodes of Ranvier), increasing transmission speed along the axon. Myelin is manufactured by Schwann's cells, and consists of 70-80% lipids (fat) and 20-30% protein.

The cell body (soma) contains the neuron's nucleus (with DNA and typical nuclear organelles). Dendrites branch from the cell body and receive messages.

A typical neuron has about 1,000 to 10,000 synapses (that is, it communicates with 1,000-10,000 other neurons, muscle cells, glands, etc.).

There are different types of neurons. They all carry electro-chemical nerve signals, but differ in structure (the number of processes, or axons, emanating from the cell body) and are found in different parts of the body.

  • Sensory neurons or Bipolar neurons carry messages from the body's sense receptors (eyes, ears, etc.) to the CNS. These neurons have two processes. Sensory neuron account for 0.9% of all neurons. (Examples are retinal cells, olfactory epithelium cells.)
  • Motoneurons or Multipolar neurons carry signals from the CNS to the muscles and glands. These neurons have many processes originating from the cell body. Motoneurons account for 9% of all neurons. (Examples are spinal motor neurons, pyramidal neurons, Purkinje cells.)
  • Interneurons or Pseudopolare (Spelling) cells form all the neural wiring within the CNS. These have two axons (instead of an axon and a dendrite). One axon communicates with the spinal cord; one with either the skin or muscle. These neurons have two processes. (Examples are dorsal root ganglia cells.)


Unlike most other cells, neurons cannot regrow after damage (except neurons from the hippocampus). Fortunately, there are about 100 billion neurons in the brain.


Glial cells make up 90 percent of the brain's cells. Glial cells are nerve cells that don't carry nerve impulses. The various glial (meaning "glue") cells perform many important functions, including: digestion of parts of dead neurons, manufacturing myelin for neurons, providing physical and nutritional support for neurons, and more. Types of glial cells include Schwann's Cells, Satellite Cells, Microglia, Oligodendroglia, and Astroglia.

Neuroglia (meaning "nerve glue") are the another type of brain cell. These cells guide neurons during fetal development.

Glial cells, sometimes called neuroglia or simply glia (Greek γλία, γλοία "glue"; pronounced in English as either /ˈɡlə/ or /ˈɡlə/), are non-neuronal cells that maintain homeostasis, form myelin, and provide support and protection for neurons in the brain, and for neurons in other parts of the nervous system such as in the autonomic nervous system.[1]

As the Greek name implies, glia are commonly known as the glue of the nervous system; however, this is not fully accurate. Neuroscience currently identifies four main functions of glial cells: to surround neurons and hold them in place, to supply nutrients and oxygen to neurons, to insulate one neuron from another, and to destroy pathogens and remove dead neurons. For over a century, it was believed that they did not play any role in neurotransmission. That idea is now discredited;[2] they do modulate neurotransmission, although the mechanisms are not yet well understood.[2][3][4]

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