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Unit 10: Neurobiology
The Action Potential

What is a nerve impulse? A nerve impulse, or an action potential, is a series of electrical responses that occur in the cell. (Fig. 2) With the appropriate stimulation, the voltage in the dendrite of the neuron will become somewhat less negative. This change in the membrane potential, called depolarization, will cause the voltage-gated sodium channels to open. Sodium ions will rush in, resulting in a rapid change in the charge. At the peak of the action potential, that area of the neuron is about 40 mV positive. As the voltage becomes positive, the sodium channels close, or inactivate, and the voltage-gated potassium channels open. These potassium channels let potassium ions rush out of the cell, causing the voltage to become negative again. The potassium channels remain open until the membrane potential becomes at least as negative as the resting potential. In many cases, the membrane potential becomes even more negative than the resting potential for a brief period; this is called hyperpolarization. An action potential typically lasts a few milliseconds.

Figure 2: Action potential movement through an axon
How can this action potential be propagated along the neuron? When the sodium channels are opened, sodium ions rush in; once inside they cause nearby regions of the neuron to become depolarized by moving laterally through the axon. This, in turn, causes the opening of more voltage-gated sodium channels in those regions. Thus, the sodium channel activation moves in a wave-like fashion: the action potential is propagated down the length of the neuron, from its input source at the dendrites, to the cell body, and then down the axon to the synaptic terminals. How does the action potential maintain this directional flow that is key to information processing? The sodium channels have a mechanism that avoids "back propagation" of the action potential, which would result in a confused signal. After opening, the sodium channels become inactivated as the potential becomes more positive, and they cannot open again until they are "reset" by hyperpolarization at the end of an action potential. This brief period of sodium channel inactivation, called a refractory period, prevents bidirectional propagation of the action potential, constraining it to go in only one direction.

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