• Ronald W. Shonkwiler
  • James Herod
Part of the Undergraduate Texts in Mathematics book series (UTM)


This chapter presents a discussion of the means, primarily electrical, by which the parts of an organism communicate with each other. We will see that this communication is not like that of a conducting wire; rather, it involves a self-propagating change in the ionic conductance of the cell membrane. The nerve cell, or neuron, has an energy-requiring, steady-state condition in which the interior of the cell is at a negative potential relative to the exterior. Information transfer takes the form of a disruption of this steady-state condition, in which the polarity of a local region of the membrane is transiently reversed. This reversal is self-propagating, and is called an action potential. It is an all-or-none phenomenon: Either it occurs in full form or it doesn’t occur at all. Neurons are separated by a synaptic cleft, and interneuronal transmission of information is chemically mediated. An action potential in a presynaptic neuron triggers the release of a neurotransmitter chemical that diffuses to the postsynaptic cell. The sum of all the excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters that reach a postsynaptic cell in a short period of time determines whether a new action potential is generated.


Postsynaptic Neuron Temporal Summation Presynaptic Neuron Giant Axon Potassium Conductance 
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References and Suggested Further Reading

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    Molecular biology of neurons: B. Alberts, D. Bray, J. Lewis, M. Raff, K. Roberts, and J. D. Watson, Molecular Biology of the Cell, 3rd ed., Garland, New York, 1994.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag New York 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of MathematicsGeorgia Institute of TechnologyAtlantaUSA

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