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Biology LibreTexts

11.4: Nerve Impulses

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  • When Lightning Strikes


    Figure 1

    This amazing cloud-to-surface lightning occurred when a difference in electrical charge built up in a cloud relative to the ground. When the buildup of charge was great enough, a sudden discharge of electricity occurred. A nerve impulse is similar to a lightning strike. Both a nerve impulse and a lightning strike occur because of differences in electrical charge, and both result in an electric current.

    Generating Nerve Impulses

    nerve impulse, like a lightning strike, is an electrical phenomenon. A nerve impulse occurs because of a difference in electrical charge across the plasma membrane of a neuron. How does this difference in electrical charge come about? The answer involves ions, which are electrically charged atoms or molecules.

    Resting Potential

    When a neuron is not actively transmitting a nerve impulse, it is in a resting state, ready to transmit a nerve impulse. During the resting state, the sodium-potassium pump maintains a difference in charge across the cell membrane of the neuron. The sodium-potassium pump is a mechanism of active transport that moves sodium ions out of cells and potassium ions into cells. The sodium-potassium pump moves both ions from areas of lower to higher concentration, using energy in ATP and carrier proteins in the cell membrane. The figure belowshows in greater detail how the sodium-potassium pump works. Sodium is the principal ion in the fluid outside of cells, and potassium is the principal ion in the fluid inside of cells. These differences in concentration create an electrical gradient across the cell membrane, called resting potential. Tightly controlling membrane resting potential is critical for the transmission of nerve impulses.


    Figure 2. The sodium-potassium pump maintains the resting potential of a neuron. There is more negative charge inside than outside the cell membrane. ATP is used to pump sodium out and potassium in to the cell.


    Action Potential

    An action potential, also called a nerve impulse, is an electrical charge that travels along the membrane of a neuron. It can be generated when a neuron’s membrane potential is changed by chemical signals from a nearby cell. In an action potential, the cell membrane potential changes quickly from negative to positive as sodium ions flow into the cell through ion channels, while potassium ions flow out of the cell, as shown in Figure below.


    Figure 3. An action potential speeds along an axon in milliseconds. Sodium ions flow in and cause the action potential, and then potassium ions flow out to reset the resting potential.


    The change in membrane potential results in the cell becoming depolarized. An action potential works on an all-or-nothing basis. That is, the membrane potential has to reach a certain level of depolarization, called the threshold, otherwise an action potential will not start. This threshold potential varies, but is generally about 15 millivolts (mV) more positive than the cell's resting membrane potential. If a membrane depolarization does not reach the threshold level, an action potential will not happen. You can see in Figure below that two depolarizations did not reach the threshold level of -55mV.

    The first channels to open are the sodium ion channels, which allow sodium ions to enter the cell. The resulting increase in positive charge inside the cell (up to about +40 mV) starts the action potential. This is called the depolarization of the membrane. Potassium ion channels then open, allowing potassium ions to flow out of the cell, which ends the action potential. The inside of the membrane becomes negative again. This is called repolarization of the membrane. Both of the ion channels then close, and the sodium-potassium pump restores the resting potential of -70 mV. The action potential will move down the axon toward the synapse like a wave would move along the surface of water. The figure below shows the change in potential of the axon membrane during action potential. 


    Figure 4. An action potential graph of membrane potential over time. A neuron must reach a certain threshold in order to begin the depolarization step of reaching the action potential.


    In myelinated neurons, ion flows occur only at the nodes of Ranvier. As a result, the action potential signal "jumps" along the axon membrane from node to node rather than spreading smoothly along the membrane, as they do in axons that do not have a myelin sheath. This is due to a clustering of Na+ and K+ ion channels at the Nodes of Ranvier. Unmyelinated axons do not have nodes of Ranvier, and ion channels in these axons are spread over the entire membrane surface.


    Transmitting Nerve Impulses

    The place where an axon terminal meets another cell is called a synapse. This is where the transmission of a nerve impulse to another cell occurs. The cell that sends the nerve impulse is called the presynaptic cell, and the cell that receives the nerve impulse is called the postsynaptic cell.

    Some synapses are purely electrical and make direct electrical connections between neurons. However, most synapses are chemical synapses. Transmission of nerve impulses across chemical synapses is more complex.

    Chemical Synapses

    At a chemical synapse, both the presynaptic and postsynaptic areas of the cells are full of molecular machinery that is involved in the transmission of nerve impulses. As shown in the diagram below, the presynaptic area contains many tiny spherical vessels called synaptic vesicles that are packed with chemicals called neurotransmitters. When an action potential reaches the axon terminal of the presynaptic cell, it opens channels that allow calcium to enter the terminal. Calcium causes synaptic vesicles to fuse with the membrane, releasing their contents into the narrow space between the presynaptic and postsynaptic membranes. This area is called the synaptic cleft. The neurotransmitter molecules travel across the synaptic cleft and bind to receptors, which are proteins that are embedded in the membrane of the postsynaptic cell.


    Figure 5.This diagram shows how an action potential transmits a signal across a synapse to another cell by neurotransmitter molecules. The inset diagram shows in detail the structures and processes occurring at a single axon terminal and synapse.


    Neurotransmitters and Receptors

    There are more than a hundred known neurotransmitters, and more than one type of neurotransmitter may be released by a given synapse. For example, it is common for a faster-acting neurotransmitter to be released along with a slower-acting neurotransmitter. Many neurotransmitters also have multiple types of receptors to which they can bind. Receptors, in turn, can be divided into two general groups: chemically gated ion channels and second messenger systems.

    • When a chemically gated ion channel is activated, it forms a passage that allows specific types of ions to flow across the cell membrane. Depending on the type of ion, the effect on the target cell may be excitatory or inhibitory.
    • When a second messenger system is activated, it starts a cascade of molecular interactions inside the target cell. This may ultimately produce a wide variety of complex effects, such as increasing or decreasing the sensitivity of the cell to stimuli or even altering gene transcription.

    The effect of a neurotransmitter on a postsynaptic cell depends mainly on the type of receptors that it activates, making it possible for a particular neurotransmitter to have different effects on various target cells. A neurotransmitter might excite one set of target cells, inhibit others, and have complex modulatory effects on still others, depending on the type of receptors. However, some neurotransmitters have relatively consistent effects on other cells. Consider the two most widely used neurotransmitters, glutamate and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). Glutamate receptors are either excitatory or modulatory in their effects, whereas GABA receptors are all inhibitory in their effects in adults.

    Problems with neurotransmitters or their receptors can cause neurological disorders. For example, the disease myasthenia gravis is caused by antibodies from the immune system blocking receptors for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in postsynaptic muscle cells. This inhibits the effects of acetylcholine on muscle contractions, producing symptoms such as muscle weakness and excessive fatigue during simple activities. Some mental illnesses including depression are caused, at least in part, by imbalances of certain neurotransmitters in the brain. One of the neurotransmitters involved in depression is thought to be serotonin, which normally helps regulate mood among many other functions. Some antidepressant drugs are thought to help alleviate depression in many patients by normalizing the activity of serotonin in the brain.


    • A nerve impulse is an electrical phenomenon that occurs because of a difference in electrical charge across the plasma membrane of a neuron.
    • The sodium-potassium pump maintains an electrical gradient across the plasma membrane of a neuron when it is not actively transmitting a nerve impulse. This gradient is called the resting potential of the neuron.
    • An action potential is a sudden reversal of the electrical gradient across the plasma membrane of a resting neuron. It begins when the neuron receives a chemical signal from another cell or some other type of stimulus. The action potential travels rapidly down the neuron’s axon as an electric current.
    • A nerve impulse is transmitted to another cell at either an electrical or a chemical synapse. At a chemical synapse, neurotransmitter chemicals are released from the presynaptic cell into the synaptic cleft between cells. The chemicals travel across the cleft to the postsynaptic cell and bind to receptors embedded in its membrane.
    • There are many different types of neurotransmitters. Their effects on the postsynaptic cell generally depend on the type of receptor they bind to. The effects may be excitatory, inhibitory, or modulatory in more complex ways. Both physical and mental disorders may occur if there are problems with neurotransmitters or their receptors.


    1. Define nerve impulse.
    2. What is the resting potential of a neuron, and how is it maintained?
    3. Explain how and why an action potential occurs.
    4. Outline how a signal is transmitted from a presynaptic cell to a postsynaptic cell at a chemical synapse.
    5. What generally determines the effects of a neurotransmitter on a postsynaptic cell?
    6. Identify three general types of effects neurotransmitters may have on postsynaptic cells.
    7. Explain how an electrical signal in a presynaptic neuron causes the transmission of a chemical signal at the synapse.
    8. a. The flow of which type of ion into a neuron results in an action potential?

      b. How do these ions get into the cell?

      c. What does this flow of ions do to the relative charge inside the neuron compared to the outside?

    9. The sodium-potassium pump:

      A. is activated by an action potential

      B. requires energy

      C. does not require energy

      D. pumps potassium ions out of cells

    10. True or False. Some action potentials are larger than others, depending on the amount of stimulation.

    11. True or False. Synaptic vesicles from the presynaptic cell enter the postsynaptic cell.

    12. True or False. An action potential in a presynaptic cell can ultimately cause the postsynaptic cell to become inhibited.

    13. Name three neurotransmitters.

    Explore More

    You can watch an animation showing in detail how a nerve impulse is transmitted across a synapse at this link:

    Antidepressants are the third most commonly prescribed therapeutic drugs in the United States. Watch the following short video to learn how antidepressants called SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) change the levels of serotonin in synapses in the brain and thereby improve transmission of nerve impulses between neurons.



    Image Attributions

    [Figure 1] 
    Credit: By U.S. Navy photo by Photographers Mate 2nd Class Aaron Ansarov ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; 
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0

    [Figure 2] 
    Credit: By LadyofHats Mariana Ruiz Villarreal [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; 
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0

    [Figure 3] 
    Credit: Rupali Raju; 
    Source: CK-12 Foundation

    [Figure 4] 
    Credit: Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons; 
    Source: Wikimedia Commons

    [Figure 5] 
    Credit: By user:Looie496 created file, US National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Aging created original [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; 
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0