Nerve Impulse

The conduction of nerve impulses relies upon the movement of electrically charge ions across the nerve cell membrane. When a nerve is resting, or polorized, there are more potassium ions than sodium ions inside the cell, with an opposite ratio outside. Sodium ions are actively kept out of the cell by an energy consuming pump mechanism. This maintains a negative charge on the inside of the cell and a positive charge on the outside. When an impulse travels along the nerve, sodium ions flood into the cell and make the inside of the cell positive with respect to the outside. This produces a rise in the electrical potential across the cell membrane. After the impulse has passed, potassium ions leave the cell, restoring the negative charge within the cell and the positive charge outside it. While this resting situation is being restored another impulse cannot be generated.

Ion Conductances

The generation of action potentials is mainly due to the changes of sodium (Na+) and potassium (K+) conductances. Figure 2 shows the concentrations of Na+ and K+ ions on both sides of a nerve membrane. For Na+, its concentration on the extracellular side is much higher than inside. We immediately notice that Na+ ions are far from electrochemical equilibrium -- both the electric force due to electric potential difference and the chemical force due to ion concentration difference are pointing inward. How could the nerve membrane maintain such a stable state? This is because the conductance of Na+ ions in the membrane is very small at the resting membrane potential. Although the inward driving force is large, the resulting Na+ influx is small. This small influx can be balanced by a slow ion transport process, the Na+-K+ pump, which moves the Na+ ions outward and simultaneously the K+ ions inward.

The conductance of Na+ ions may change dramatically with the membrane potential as demonstrated by voltage clamp experiments, in which the membrane potential is displaced to a new value and maintained there . Because ions carry charges, the movement of ions across the membrane will change the membrane potential. To maintain a constant membrane potential, the voltage clamp circuit must generate electric currents to neutralize the membrane potential change caused by the ionic flux. Thus, the ion current through the membrane is reflected in the electric current of the voltage clamp circuit outside the membrane

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