Neurons communicate at synapses, or junctions, to excite or inhibit the activity of other neurons or target cells, such as muscles. Synapses may be chemical or electrical.
Most synapses are chemical. That means that an electrical impulse—or action potential—spurs the release of chemical messengers. These chemical messengers are also called neurotransmitters. The neuron sending the signal is called the presynaptic neuron. The neuron receiving the signal is the postsynaptic neuron. The presynaptic neuron fires an action potential that travels through its axon. The end of the axon, or axon terminal, contains neurotransmitter-filled vesicles. The action potential opens voltage-gated calcium ion channels in the axon terminal membrane. Ca2+ rapidly enters the presynaptic cell (due to the higher external Ca2+ concentration), enabling the vesicles to fuse with the terminal membrane and release neurotransmitters. The space between presynaptic and postsynaptic cells is called the synaptic cleft. Neurotransmitters released from the presynaptic cell rapidly populate the synaptic cleft and bind to receptors on the postsynaptic neuron. The binding of neurotransmitters instigates chemical changes in the postsynaptic neuron, such as opening or closing ion channels. This, in turn, alters the membrane potential of the postsynapti…
Core: Cell Signaling
Neurons communicate with one another by passing on their electrical signals to other neurons. A synapse is the location where two neurons meet to exchange signals. At the synapse, the neuron that sends the signal is called the presynaptic cell, while the neuron that receives the message is called the postsynaptic cell. Note that most neurons can be both presynaptic and postsynaptic, as they both transmit and receive information. An electrical synapse is one type of synapse in which the pre- and postsynaptic cells are physically coupled by proteins called gap junctions. This allows electrical signals to be directly transmitted to the postsynaptic cell. One feature of these synapses is that they can transmit electrical signals extremely quickly—sometimes at a fraction of a millisecond—and do not require any energy input. This is often useful in circuits that are part of escape behaviors, such as that found in the crayfish that couples the sensation of a predator with the activation of the motor response. In contrast, transmission at chemical synapses is a stepwise process. When an action potential reaches the end of the axonal terminal, voltage-gated calcium channels open and allows calcium ions to enter. These ions trigger fusion of neurotransmitter-containing vesicles with the cellular membrane, releasing neurotransmitters into the small space b…
Core: Nervous System
1Department of Biology, University of Kentucky, 2Department of Biology, College of Science, University of Salahaddin, Iraq, 3Department of Neurobiology and Cognitive Neuroscience, SISSA, Italy