The functions of the nervous system—sensation, integration, and response—depend on the functions of the neurons underlying these pathways. To understand how neurons are able to communicate, it is necessary to describe the role of an excitable membrane in generating these signals. The basis of this communication is the action potential, which demonstrates how changes in the membrane can constitute a signal. Looking at the way these signals work in more variable circumstances involves a look at graded potentials, which will be covered in the next section.
Electrically Active Cell Membranes
Most cells in the body make use of charged particles, ions, to build up a charge across the cell membrane. For skeletal muscles to contract, based on excitation–contraction coupling, requires input from a neuron. Both of the cells make use of the cell membrane to regulate ion movement between the extracellular fluid and cytosol.
As you learned from Material Transport in cells, the cell membrane is primarily responsible for regulating what can cross the membrane and what stays on only one side. The cell membrane is a phospholipid bilayer, so only substances that can pass directly through the hydrophobic core can diffuse through unaided. Charged particles, which are hydrophilic by definition, cannot pass through the cell membrane without assistance. Transmembrane proteins, specifically Channel proteins, make this possible. Several passive transport channels, as well as active transport pumps, are necessary to generate a transmembrane potential and an action potential. Of special interest is the Carrier protein referred to as the sodium/potassium pump that moves sodium ions (Na+) out of a cell and potassium ions (K+) into a cell, thus regulating ion concentration on both sides of the cell membrane.
Ion channels are pores that allow specific charged particles to cross the membrane in response to an existing concentration gradient (Facilitated Diffusion). Proteins are capable of spanning the cell membrane, including its hydrophobic core, and can interact with the charge of ions because of the varied properties of amino acids found within specific domains or regions of the protein channel. Hydrophobic amino acids are found in the domains that are opposed to the hydrocarbon tails of the phospholipids. Hydrophilic amino acids are exposed to the fluid environments of the extracellular fluid and cytosol. Additionally, the ions will interact with the hydrophilic amino acids, which will be selective for the charge of the ion. Channels for cations (positive ions) will have negatively charged side chains in the pore. Channels for anions (negative ions) will have positively charged side chains in the pore. This is called electrochemical exclusion, meaning that the channel pore is charge-specific.
Ion channels can also be specified by the diameter of the pore. The distance between the amino acids will be specific for the diameter of the ion when it dissociates from the water molecules surrounding it. Because of the surrounding water molecules, larger pores are not ideal for smaller ions because the water molecules will interact, by hydrogen bonds, more readily than the amino acid side chains. This is called size exclusion. Some ion channels are selective for charge but not necessarily for size, and thus are called a nonspecific channel. These nonspecific channels allow cations—particularly Na+, K+, and Ca2+—to cross the membrane, but exclude anions.
Ion channels do not always freely allow ions to diffuse across the membrane. Some are opened by certain events or signals, meaning the channels are gated. So another way that channels can be categorized is on the basis of how they are gated. Although these classes of ion channels are found primarily in the cells of nervous or muscular tissue, they also can be found in the cells of epithelial and connective tissues.
A ligand-gated channel opens because a signaling molecule, a ligand, binds to the extracellular region of the channel. This type of channel is also known as an ionotropic receptor because when the ligand, known as a neurotransmitter in the nervous system, binds to the protein, ions cross the membrane changing its charge (Figure 2).
Figure 2: When the ligand, in this case the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, binds to a specific location on the extracellular surface of the channel protein, the pore opens to allow select ions through. The ions, in this case, are cations of sodium, calcium, and potassium.
Mechanically Gated Channels
A mechanically gated channel opens because of a physical distortion of the cell membrane. Many channels associated with the sense of touch (somatosensation) are mechanically gated. For example, as pressure is applied to the skin, these channels open and allow ions to enter the cell. Similar to this type of channel would be the channel that opens on the basis of temperature changes, as in testing the water in the shower (Figure 3).
Figure 3: When a mechanical change occurs in the surrounding tissue, such as pressure or touch, the channel is physically opened. Thermoreceptors work on a similar principle. When the local tissue temperature changes, the protein reacts by physically opening the channel.
A voltage-gated channel is a channel that responds to changes in the electrical properties of the membrane in which it is embedded. Normally, the inner portion of the membrane is at a negative voltage. When that voltage becomes less negative, the channel begins to allow ions to cross the membrane (Figure 4). Amino acids in the structure of the protein are sensitive to charge and cause the pore to open to the selected ion.
Figure 4: Voltage-gated channels open when the transmembrane voltage changes around them.
The Membrane Potential
The electrical state of the cell membrane can have several variations. These are all variations in the membrane potential. A potential is a distribution of charge across the cell membrane, measured in millivolts (mV). The standard is to compare the inside of the cell relative to the outside, so the membrane potential is a value representing the charge on the intracellular side of the membrane based on the outside being zero. The concentration of ions in extracellular and intracellular fluids is largely balanced, with a net neutral charge. Resting membrane potential describes the steady state of the cell, which is a dynamic process that is balanced by ion leakage and ion pumping. Without any outside influence, it will not change. To get an electrical signal started, the membrane potential has to change.
This starts with a channel opening for Na+ in the membrane. Because the concentration of Na+ is higher outside the cell than inside the cell by a factor of 10, ions will rush into the cell (Facilitated Diffusion) that are driven largely by the concentration gradient. Because sodium is a positively charged ion, it will change the relative voltage immediately inside the cell relative to immediately outside. The resting potential is the state of the membrane at a voltage of -70 mV, so the sodium cation entering the cell will cause it to become less negative. This is known as depolarization, meaning the membrane potential moves toward zero.
The concentration gradient for Na+ is so strong that it will continue to enter the cell even after the membrane potential has become zero, so that the voltage immediately around the pore begins to become positive. It is the difference in this very limited region that has all the power in neurons (and muscle cells) to generate electrical signals, called action potentials.
As the membrane potential reaches +30 mV, other voltage-gated channels are opening in the membrane. These channels are specific for the potassium ion which has a high concentration inside the cell and a concentration gradient acts on K+, as well. As K+ starts to leave the cell (Facilitated Diffusion), taking a positive charge with it, the membrane potential begins to move back toward its resting voltage. This is called repolarization, meaning that the membrane voltage moves back toward the -70 mV value of the resting membrane potential.
In order for a nerve or muscle to create another action potential, the Sodium and Potassium ions must return to their original places outside and inside the cell. Since the concentration of Na+ is still higher outside the cell than inside and the concentration of K+ is still higher inside the cell than outside, this means that Active Transport is required to pump the ions of sodium and potassium against their concentration gradients requiring energy. The sodium/potassium pump uses energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to facilitate this process. This results in the membrane returning to its original resting membrane potential ready to create another action potential.
Text from: Open Stax Anatomy and Physiology. October 29, 2016. http://cnx.org/contents/FPtK1zmh@8.25:QBrzNCkw@5/The-Action-Potential