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Axons: Nerve fibers that are capable of rapidly conducting impulses away from the neuron cell body.

Action Potentials

JoVE 10844

Neurons communicate by firing action potentials—the electrochemical signal that is propagated along the axon. The signal results in the release of neurotransmitters at axon terminals, thereby transmitting information in the nervous system. An action potential is a specific “all-or-none” change in membrane potential that results in a rapid spike in voltage.

Neurons typically have a resting membrane potential of about -70 millivolts (mV). When they receive signals—for instance, from neurotransmitters or sensory stimuli—their membrane potential can hyperpolarize (become more negative) or depolarize (become more positive), depending on the nature of the stimulus. If the membrane becomes depolarized to a specific threshold potential, voltage-gated sodium (Na+) channels open in response. Na+ has a higher concentration outside of the cell as compared to the inside, so it rushes in when the channels open, moving down its electrochemical gradient. As positive charge flows in, the membrane potential becomes even more depolarized, in turn opening more channels. As a result, the membrane potential quickly rises to a peak of around +40 mV. At the peak of the action potential, several factors drive the potential back down. The influx of Na+ slows because the Na+ channels start to inactiv

 Core: Biology

Somatosensation

JoVE 10859

The somatosensory system relays sensory information from the skin, mucous membranes, limbs, and joints. Somatosensation is more familiarly known as the sense of touch. A typical somatosensory pathway includes three types of long neurons: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary neurons have cell bodies located near the spinal cord in groups of neurons called dorsal root ganglia. The sensory neurons of ganglia innervate designated areas of skin called dermatomes. In the skin, specialized structures called mechanoreceptors transduce mechanical pressure or distortion into neural signals. In hairless skin, most disturbances can be detected by one of four types of mechanoreceptors. Two of these, Merkel disks and Ruffini endings, are slow-adapting and continue to respond to stimuli that remain in prolonged contact with the skin. Merkel disks respond to light touch. Ruffini endings detect deeper static touch, skin stretch, joint deformation, and warmth. The other two major cutaneous mechanoreceptors, Meissner corpuscles and Pacinian corpuscles, are rapidly-adapting. These mechanoreceptors detect dynamic stimuli, like those required to read Braille. Meissner corpuscles are responsive to delicate touch and pressure, as well as low-frequency vibrations. Pacinian corpuscles respond best to deep, repetitive pressure and high-frequency vibrations. Information detected

 Core: Biology

Glial Cells

JoVE 10843

Glial cells are one of the two main types of cells in the nervous system. Glia cells comprise astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, microglia, and ependymal cells in the central nervous system, and satellite and Schwann cells in the peripheral nervous system. These cells do not communicate via electrical signals like neurons do, but they contribute to virtually every other aspect of nervous system function. In humans, the number of glial cells is roughly equal to the number of neurons in the brain. Glia in the central nervous system (CNS) include astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, microglia, and ependymal cells. Astrocytes are the most abundant type of glial cell and are found in organized, non-overlapping patterns throughout the brain, where they closely associate with neurons and capillaries. Astrocytes play numerous roles in brain function, including regulating blood flow and metabolic processes, synaptic ion and pH homeostasis, and blood-brain barrier maintenance. Another specialized glial cell, the oligodendrocyte, forms the myelin sheath that surrounds neuronal axons in the CNS. Oligodendrocytes extend long cellular processes that wrap around axons multiple times to form this coating. Myelin sheath is required for proper conduction of neuronal signaling and greatly increases the speed at which these messages travel. Microglia—known as the macrop

 Core: Biology

Neuron Structure

JoVE 10842

Neurons are the main type of cell in the nervous system that generate and transmit electrochemical signals. They primarily communicate with each other using neurotransmitters at specific junctions called synapses. Neurons come in many shapes that often relate to their function, but most share three main structures: an axon and dendrites that extend out from a cell body.

The neuronal cell body—the soma— houses the nucleus and organelles vital to cellular function. Extending from the cell body are thin structures that are specialized for receiving and sending signals. Dendrites typically receive signals while the axon passes on the signals to other cells, such as other neurons or muscle cells. The point at which a neuron makes a connection to another cell is called a synapse. Neurons receive inputs primarily at postsynaptic terminals, which are frequently located on spines—small bumps protruding from the dendrites. These specialized structures contain receptors for neurotransmitters and other chemical signals. Dendrites are often highly branched, allowing some neurons to receive tens of thousands of inputs. Neurons most commonly receive signals at their dendrites, but they can also have synapses in other areas, such as the cell body. The signal received at the synapses travels down the dendrite to the soma, where the cell can proce

 Core: Biology

Olfaction

JoVE 10852

The sense of smell is achieved through the activities of the olfactory system. It starts when an airborne odorant enters the nasal cavity and reaches olfactory epithelium (OE). The OE is protected by a thin layer of mucus, which also serves the purpose of dissolving more complex compounds into simpler chemical odorants. The size of the OE and the density of sensory neurons varies among species; in humans, the OE is only about 9-10 cm2. The olfactory receptors are embedded in the cilia of the olfactory sensory neurons. Each neuron expresses only one type of olfactory receptor. However, each type of olfactory receptor is broadly tuned and can bind to multiple different odorants. For example, if receptor A binds to odorants 1 and 2, receptor B may bind to odorants 2 and 3, while receptor C binds to odorants 1 and 3. Thus, the detection and identification of an odor depend on the combination of olfactory receptors that recognize the odor; this is called combinatorial diversity. Olfactory sensory neurons are bipolar cells with a single long axon that sends olfactory information up to the olfactory bulb (OB). The OB is a part of the brain that is separated from the nasal cavity by the cribriform plate. Because of this convenient proximity between the nose and brain, the development of nasal drug applications is widely studied, especially in cases

 Core: Biology

The Parasympathetic Nervous System

JoVE 10839

The parasympathetic nervous system is one of the two major divisions of the autonomic nervous system. This parasympathetic system is responsible for regulating many unconscious functions, such as heart rate and digestion. It is composed of neurons located in both the brain and the peripheral nervous system that send their axons to target muscles, organs, and glands.

Activation of the parasympathetic system tends to have a relaxing effect on the body, promoting functions that replenish resources and restore homeostasis. It is therefore sometimes referred to as the “rest and digest” system. The parasympathetic system predominates during calm times when it is safe to devote resources to basic “housekeeping” functions without a threat of attack or harm. The parasympathetic nervous system can be activated by various parts of the brain, including the hypothalamus. Preganglionic neurons in the brainstem and sacral part of the spinal cord first send their axons out to ganglia—clusters of neuronal cell bodies—in the peripheral nervous system. These ganglia contain the connections between pre- and postganglionic neurons and are located near the organs or glands that they control. From here, postganglionic neurons send their axons onto target tissues—generally smooth muscle, cardiac muscle, or glands. Typic

 Core: Biology

The Spinal Cord

JoVE 10872

The spinal cord is the body’s major nerve tract of the central nervous system, communicating afferent sensory information from the periphery to the brain and efferent motor information from the brain to the body. The human spinal cord extends from the hole at the base of the skull, or foramen magnum, to the level of the first or second lumbar vertebra.

The spinal cord is cylindrical and contains both white and grey matter. In the center is the central canal, which is the remnant of the lumen of the primitive neural tube and is part of the internal system of cerebrospinal fluid cavities. In cross-section, the grey matter surrounding the central canal appears butterfly-shaped. The wings of the butterfly are divided into dorsal and ventral horns. The dorsal horn contains sensory nuclei that relay sensory information, and the ventral horn contains motor neurons that give rise to the axons that innervate skeletal muscle. White matter surrounds the gray matter and contains large numbers of myelinated fibers. The white matter is arranged into longitudinal bundles called dorsal, lateral, and ventral columns. Three membranes surround the spinal cord: the pia adheres closely to the surface of the spinal cord, followed by the arachnoid, and the dura mater—the tough outermost sheath. The spinal cord is divided into four different r

 Core: Biology
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