Action potential

As an action potential (nerve impulse) travels down an axon there is a change in electric polarity across the membrane of the axon. In response to a signal from another neuron, sodium- (Na+) and potassium- (K+) gated ion channels open and close as the membrane reaches its threshold potential. Na+ channels open at the beginning of the action potential, and Na+ moves into the axon, causing depolarization. Repolarization occurs when the K+ channels open and K+ moves out of the axon, creating a change in electric polarity between the outside of the cell and the inside. The impulse travels down the axon in one direction only, to the axon terminal where it signals other neurons.
Shape of a typical action potential. The membrane potential remains near a baseline level until at some point in time, it abruptly spikes upward and then rapidly falls.
Approximate plot of a typical action potential shows its various phases as the action potential passes a point on a cell membrane. The membrane potential starts out at approximately −70 mV at time zero. A stimulus is applied at time = 1 ms, which raises the membrane potential above −55 mV (the threshold potential). After the stimulus is applied, the membrane potential rapidly rises to a peak potential of +40 mV at time = 2 ms. Just as quickly, the potential then drops and overshoots to −90 mV at time = 3 ms, and finally the resting potential of −70 mV is reestablished at time = 5 ms.
Action potential propagation along an axon
Ion movement during an action potential.
Key: a) Sodium (Na+) ion. b) Potassium (K+) ion. c) Sodium channel. d) Potassium channel. e) Sodium-potassium pump. In the stages of an action potential, the permeability of the membrane of the neuron changes. At the resting state (1), sodium and potassium ions have limited ability to pass through the membrane, and the neuron has a net negative charge inside. Once the action potential is triggered, the depolarization (2) of the neuron activates sodium channels, allowing sodium ions to pass through the cell membrane into the cell, resulting in a net positive charge in the neuron relative to the extracellular fluid. After the action potential peak is reached, the neuron begins repolarization (3), where the sodium channels close and potassium channels open, allowing potassium ions to cross the membrane into the extracellular fluid, returning the membrane potential to a negative value. Finally, there is a refractory period (4), during which the voltage-dependent ion channels are inactivated while the Na+ and K+ ions return to their resting state distributions across the membrane (1), and the neuron is ready to repeat the process for the next action potential.
When an action potential arrives at the end of the pre-synaptic axon (top), it causes the release of neurotransmitter molecules that open ion channels in the post-synaptic neuron (bottom). The combined excitatory and inhibitory postsynaptic potentials of such inputs can begin a new action potential in the post-synaptic neuron.
In pacemaker potentials, the cell spontaneously depolarizes (straight line with upward slope) until it fires an action potential.
In saltatory conduction, an action potential at one node of Ranvier causes inwards currents that depolarize the membrane at the next node, provoking a new action potential there; the action potential appears to "hop" from node to node.
Comparison of the conduction velocities of myelinated and unmyelinated axons in the cat. The conduction velocity v of myelinated neurons varies roughly linearly with axon diameter d (that is, v ∝ d), whereas the speed of unmyelinated neurons varies roughly as the square root (v ∝√d). The red and blue curves are fits of experimental data, whereas the dotted lines are their theoretical extrapolations.
Cable theory's simplified view of a neuronal fiber. The connected RC circuits correspond to adjacent segments of a passive neurite. The extracellular resistances re (the counterparts of the intracellular resistances ri) are not shown, since they are usually negligibly small; the extracellular medium may be assumed to have the same voltage everywhere.
Electrical synapses between excitable cells allow ions to pass directly from one cell to another, and are much faster than chemical synapses.
Phases of a cardiac action potential. The sharp rise in voltage ("0") corresponds to the influx of sodium ions, whereas the two decays ("1" and "3", respectively) correspond to the sodium-channel inactivation and the repolarizing eflux of potassium ions. The characteristic plateau ("2") results from the opening of voltage-sensitive calcium channels.
Giant axons of the longfin inshore squid (Doryteuthis pealeii) were crucial for scientists to understand the action potential.
As revealed by a patch clamp electrode, an ion channel has two states: open (high conductance) and closed (low conductance).
Tetrodotoxin is a lethal toxin found in pufferfish that inhibits the voltage-sensitive sodium channel, halting action potentials.
Image of two Purkinje cells (labeled as A) drawn by Santiago Ramón y Cajal in 1899. Large trees of dendrites feed into the soma, from which a single axon emerges and moves generally downwards with a few branch points. The smaller cells labeled B are granule cells.
Ribbon diagram of the sodium–potassium pump in its E2-Pi state. The estimated boundaries of the lipid bilayer are shown as blue (intracellular) and red (extracellular) planes.
Equivalent electrical circuit for the Hodgkin–Huxley model of the action potential. Im and Vm represent the current through, and the voltage across, a small patch of membrane, respectively. The Cm represents the capacitance of the membrane patch, whereas the four g's represent the conductances of four types of ions. The two conductances on the left, for potassium (K) and sodium (Na), are shown with arrows to indicate that they can vary with the applied voltage, corresponding to the voltage-sensitive ion channels. The two conductances on the right help determine the resting membrane potential.

Action potential occurs when the membrane potential of a specific cell location rapidly rises and falls.

- Action potential

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Change within a cell, during which the cell undergoes a shift in electric charge distribution, resulting in less negative charge inside the cell compared to the outside.

Action potential in a neuron, showing depolarization, in which the cell's internal charge becomes less negative (more positive), and repolarization, where the internal charge returns to a more negative value.
Voltage-gated sodium channel. Open channel (top) carries an influx of Na+ ions, giving rise to depolarization. As the channel becomes closed/inactivated (bottom), the depolarization ends.
Structure of a neuron
Summation of stimuli at an axon hillock

This shift from a negative to a more positive membrane potential occurs during several processes, including an action potential.

Membrane potential

Basis of Membrane Potential2.png on opposite sides of a cellular membrane lead to a voltage called the membrane potential.

Electric field (arrows) and contours of constant voltage created by a pair of oppositely charged objects. The electric field is at right angles to the voltage contours, and the field is strongest where the spacing between contours is the smallest.
Ions (pink circles) will flow across a membrane from the higher concentration to the lower concentration (down a concentration gradient), causing a current. However, this creates a voltage across the membrane that opposes the ions' motion. When this voltage reaches the equilibrium value, the two balance and the flow of ions stops.
The cell membrane, also called the plasma membrane or plasmalemma, is a semipermeable lipid bilayer common to all living cells. It contains a variety of biological molecules, primarily proteins and lipids, which are involved in a vast array of cellular processes.
Facilitated diffusion in cell membranes, showing ion channels and carrier proteins
The sodium-potassium pump uses energy derived from ATP to exchange sodium for potassium ions across the membrane.
Despite the small differences in their radii, ions rarely go through the "wrong" channel. For example, sodium or calcium ions rarely pass through a potassium channel.
Depiction of the open potassium channel, with the potassium ion shown in purple in the middle, and hydrogen atoms omitted. When the channel is closed, the passage is blocked.
Ligand-gated calcium channel in closed and open states
Equivalent circuit for a patch of membrane, consisting of a fixed capacitance in parallel with four pathways each containing a battery in series with a variable conductance
Reduced circuit obtained by combining the ion-specific pathways using the Goldman equation
Graph displaying an EPSP, an IPSP, and the summation of an EPSP and an IPSP

In excitable cells, a sufficiently large depolarization can evoke an action potential, in which the membrane potential changes rapidly and significantly for a short time (on the order of 1 to 100 milliseconds), often reversing its polarity.

Sodium channel

Voltage-gated Sodium channels are integral membrane proteins that form ion channels, conducting sodium ions (Na+) through a cell's plasma membrane.

Diagram of a voltage-sensitive sodium channel α-subunit. G – glycosylation, P – phosphorylation, S – ion selectivity, I – inactivation. Positive (+) charges in S4 are important for transmembrane voltage sensing.
Figure 1. Likely evolutionary relationship of the nine known human sodium channels.

In excitable cells such as neurons, myocytes, and certain types of glia, sodium channels are responsible for the rising phase of action potentials.


Electrically excitable cell that communicates with other cells via specialized connections called synapses.

Anatomy of a multipolar neuron
Schematic of an anatomically accurate single pyramidal neuron, the primary excitatory neuron of cerebral cortex, with a synaptic connection from an incoming axon onto a dendritic spine.
Diagram of the components of a neuron
Neuron cell body
Diagram of a typical myelinated vertebrate motor neuron
Golgi-stained neurons in human hippocampal tissue
Actin filaments in a mouse cortical neuron in culture
Image of pyramidal neurons in mouse cerebral cortex expressing green fluorescent protein. The red staining indicates GABAergic interneurons.
SMI32-stained pyramidal neurons in cerebral cortex
Different kinds of neurons:
1 Unipolar neuron
2 Bipolar neuron
3 Multipolar neuron
4 Pseudounipolar neuron
Synaptic vesicles containing neurotransmitters
A signal propagating down an axon to the cell body and dendrites of the next cell
Chemical synapse
An annotated diagram of the stages of an action potential propagating down an axon including the role of ion concentration and pump and channel proteins.
As long as the stimulus reaches the threshold, the full response would be given. Larger stimulus does not result in a larger response, vice versa.
Drawing by Camillo Golgi of a hippocampus stained using the silver nitrate method
Drawing of a Purkinje cell in the cerebellar cortex done by Santiago Ramón y Cajal, demonstrating the ability of Golgi's staining method to reveal fine detail
Drawing of neurons in the pigeon cerebellum, by Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal in 1899. (A) denotes Purkinje cells and (B) denotes granule cells, both of which are multipolar.
Guillain–Barré syndrome – demyelination

If the voltage changes by a large enough amount over a short interval, the neuron generates an all-or-nothing electrochemical pulse called an action potential.

Axon terminal


Activity at an axon terminal: Neuron A is transmitting a signal at the axon terminal to neuron B (receiving). Features: 1. Mitochondrion.  2. Synaptic vesicle with neurotransmitters.  3. Autoreceptor.  4. Synapse with neurotransmitter released (serotonin). 5.Postsynaptic receptors activated by neurotransmitter (induction of a postsynaptic potential). 6. Calcium channel. 7. Exocytosis of a vesicle. 8. Recaptured neurotransmitter.

An axon, also called a nerve fiber, is a long, slender projection of a nerve cell, or neuron, that conducts electrical impulses called action potentials away from the neuron's cell body, or soma, in order to transmit those impulses to other neurons, muscle cells or glands.

Ion channel

Ion channels are pore-forming membrane proteins that allow ions to pass through the channel pore.

Schematic diagram of an ion channel. 1 - channel domains (typically four per channel), 2 - outer vestibule, 3 - selectivity filter, 4 - diameter of selectivity filter, 5 - phosphorylation site, 6 - cell membrane.
Selectivity filter allowing only potassium ions through the potassium channel (PDB: 1K4C).
Birth of an Idea (2007) by Julian Voss-Andreae. The sculpture was commissioned by Roderick MacKinnon based on the molecule's atomic coordinates that were determined by MacKinnon's group in 2001.

Their functions include establishing a resting membrane potential, shaping action potentials and other electrical signals by gating the flow of ions across the cell membrane, controlling the flow of ions across secretory and epithelial cells, and regulating cell volume.

Resting potential

Usually referred to as the ground value for trans-membrane voltage.

The -ATPase, as well as effects of diffusion of the involved ions, are major mechanisms to maintain the resting potential across the membranes of animal cells.
A diagram showing the progression in the development of a membrane potential from a concentration gradient (for potassium). Green arrows indicate net movement of K+ down a concentration gradient. Red arrows indicate net movement of K+ due to the membrane potential. The diagram is misleading in that while the concentration of potassium ions outside of the cell increases, only a small amount of K+ needs to cross the membrane in order to produce a membrane potential with a magnitude large enough to counter the tendency of the potassium ions to move down the concentration gradient.

The relatively static membrane potential of quiescent cells is called the resting membrane potential (or resting voltage), as opposed to the specific dynamic electrochemical phenomena called action potential and graded membrane potential.


Dendrites (from Greek δένδρον déndron, "tree"), also dendrons, are branched protoplasmic extensions of a nerve cell that propagate the electrochemical stimulation received from other neural cells to the cell body, or soma, of the neuron from which the dendrites project.

The neuron contains dendrites that receives information, a cell body called the soma, and an axon that sends information. Schwann cells make activity move faster down axon. Synapses allow neurons to activate other neurons. The dendrites receive a signal, the axon hillock funnels the signal to the initial segment and the initial segment triggers the activity (action potential) that is sent along the axon towards the synapse. Please see for interactive version
The green arrow shows the dendrites emanating from soma

Dendrites play a critical role in integrating these synaptic inputs and in determining the extent to which action potentials are produced by the neuron.


Chemical element with the symbol Na and atomic number 11.

Emission spectrum for sodium, showing the D line.
A positive flame test for sodium has a bright yellow color.
The structure of sodium chloride, showing octahedral coordination around Na+ and Cl− centres. This framework disintegrates when dissolved in water and reassembles when the water evaporates.
Two equivalent images of the chemical structure of sodium stearate, a typical soap.
The structure of the complex of sodium (Na+, shown in yellow) and the antibiotic monensin-A.
NaK phase diagram, showing the melting point of sodium as a function of potassium concentration. NaK with 77% potassium is eutectic and has the lowest melting point of the NaK alloys at −12.6 °C.

In nerve cells, the electrical charge across the cell membrane enables transmission of the nerve impulse—an action potential—when the charge is dissipated; sodium plays a key role in that activity.

Hyperpolarization (biology)

Change in a cell's membrane potential that makes it more negative.

The (a) resting membrane potential is a result of different concentrations of Na+ and K+ ions inside and outside the cell. A nerve impulse causes Na+ to enter the cell, resulting in (b) depolarization. At the peak action potential, K+ channels open and the cell becomes (c) hyperpolarized.
This image shows a model of a patch clamp used in neuroscience. The pipette tip is placed at an ion channel opening and a current is applied and measured using a voltage clamp.
Diagram of membrane potential changes during an action potential

It inhibits action potentials by increasing the stimulus required to move the membrane potential to the action potential threshold.