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  • All cells in animal body tissues are electrically polarized—in other words, they maintain a voltage difference across the cell’s plasma membrane, known as the membrane potential. As explained in the membrane potential article, this electrical polarization results from a complex interplay between protein structures embedded in the membrane called ion pumps and ion channels. In neurons, the types of ion channels in the membrane usually vary across different parts of the cell, giving the dendrites, axon, and cell body different electrical properties. As a result, some parts of the membrane of a neuron may be excitable (capable of generating action potentials) while others are not. The most excitable part of a neuron is usually the axon hillock (the point where the axon leaves the cell body), but the axon and cell body are also excitable in most cases.

    Each excitable patch of membrane has two important levels of membrane potential: the resting potential, which is the value the membrane potential maintains as long as nothing perturbs the cell, and a higher value called the threshold potential. At the axon hillock of a typical neuron, the resting potential is around -70 millivolts (mV) and the threshold potential is around -55 mV. Synaptic inputs to a neuron cause the membrane to depolarize or hyperpolarize; that is, they cause the membrane potential to rise or fall. Action potentials are triggered when enough depolarization accumulates to bring the membrane potential up to threshold. When an action potential is triggered, the membrane potential abruptly shoots upward, often reaching as high as +100 mV, then equally abruptly shoots back downward, often ending below the resting level, where it remains for some period of time. The shape of the action potential is stereotyped; that is, the rise and fall usually have approximately the same amplitude and time course for all action potentials in a given cell. (Exceptions are discussed later in the article.) In most neurons, the entire process takes place in less than a thousandth of a second. Many types of neurons emit action potentials constantly at rates of up to 10-100 per second; some types, however, are much quieter, and may go for minutes or longer without emitting any action potentials.

    At the biophysical level, action potentials result from special types of voltage-gated ion channels. As the membrane potential is increased, sodium ion channels open, allowing the entry of sodium ions into the cell. This is followed by the opening of potassium ion channels that permit the exit of potassium ions from the cell. The inward flow of sodium ions increases the concentration of positively-charged cations in the cell and causes depolarization, where the potential of the cell is higher than the cell’s resting potential. The sodium channels close at the peak of the action potential, while potassium continues to leave the cell. The efflux of potassium ions decreases the membrane potential or hyperpolarizes the cell. For small voltage increases from rest, the potassium current exceeds the sodium current and the voltage returns to its normal resting value, typically −70 mV. However, if the voltage increases past a critical threshold, typically 15 mV higher than the resting value, the sodium current dominates. This results in a runaway condition whereby the positive feedback from the sodium current activates even more sodium channels. Thus, the cell "fires," producing an action potential

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