Cellular Neuroscience

Cellular Neuroscience is the study of neurons at a cellular level. This includes morphology and physiological properties of single neurons. Several techniques such as intracellular recording, patch-clamp, and voltage-clamp technique, pharmacology, confocal imaging, molecular biology, two photon laser scanning microscopy and Ca2+ imaging have been used to study activity at the cellular level. Cellular neuroscience examines the various types of neurons, the functions of different neurons, the influence of neurons upon each other, how neurons work together.

Neurons are cells that are specialized to receive, propagate, and transmit electrochemical impulses. In the human brain alone, there are over eighty billion neurons. Neurons are diverse with respect to morphology and function. Thus, not all neurons correspond to the stereotypical motor neuron with dendrites and myelinated axons that conduct action potentials. Some neurons such as photoreceptor cells, for example, do not have myelinated axons that conduct action potentials. Other unipolar neurons found in invertebrates do not even have distinguishing processes such as dendrites. Moreover, the distinctions based on function between neurons and other cells such as cardiac and muscle cells are not helpful. Thus, the fundamental difference between a neuron and a nonneuronal cell is a matter of degree.

Another major class of cells found in the nervous system are glial cells. These cells are only recently beginning to receive attention from neurobiologists for being involved not just in nourishment and support of neurons, but also in modulating synapses. For example, Schwann cells, which are a type of glial cell found in the peripheral nervous system, modulate synaptic connections between presynaptic terminals of motor neuron endplates and muscle fibres at neuromuscular junctions. One prominent characteristic of many neurons is excitability. Neurons generate electrical impulses or changes in voltage of two types: graded potentials and action potentials. Graded potentials occur when the membrane potential depolarizes and hyperpolarizes in a graded fashion relative to the amount of stimulus that is applied to the neuron. An action potential on the other hand is an all-or-none electrical impulse. Despite being slower than graded potentials, action potentials have the advantage of traveling long distances in axons with little or no decrement.

Neurons communicate with one another via synapses. Synapses are specialized junctions between two cells in close apposition to one another. In a synapse, the neuron that sends the signal is the presynaptic neuron and the target cell receives that signal is the postsynaptic neuron or cell. Synapses can be either electrical or chemical. Electrical synapses are characterized by the formation of gap junctions that allow ions and other organic compound to instantaneously pass from one cell to another. Chemical synapses are characterized by the presynaptic release of neurotransmitters that diffuse across a synaptic cleft to bind with postsynaptic receptors. A neurotransmitter is a chemical messenger that is synthesized within neurons themselves and released by these same neurons to communicate with their postsynaptic target cells. A receptor is a trans membrane protein molecule that a neurotransmitter or drug binds. Chemical synapses are slower than electrical synapses.


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