Imagine trying to string words together into a meaningful sentence without knowing the meaning of each word or its function (i.e., Is it a verb, a noun, or an adjective?). In a similar fashion, to appreciate how groups of cells work together in a meaningful way in the brain as a whole, we must first understand how individual cells in the brain function. Much like words, brain cells, called neurons, have an underlying structure that provides the foundation for their functional purpose. Have you ever seen a neuron? Did you know that the basic structure of a neuron is similar whether it is from the brain of a rat or a human? How do the billions of neurons in our brain allow us to do all the fun things we enjoy, such as texting a friend, cheering on our favorite sports team, or laughing?
Figure 1. Three drawings by Santiago Ramón y Cajal, taken from “Comparative study of the sensory areas of the human cortex”, pages 314, 361, and 363. Left: Nissl-stained visual cortex of a human adult. Middle: Nissl-stained motor cortex of a human adult. Right: Golgi-stained cortex of a 1 1/2 month old infant. [Image: Santiago Ramon y Cajal, https://goo.gl/zOb2l1, CC0 Public Domain, https://goo.gl/m25gce]
Our journey in answering these questions begins more than 100 years ago with a scientist named Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Ramón y Cajal (1911) boldly concluded that discrete individual neurons are the structural and functional units of the nervous system. He based his conclusion on the numerous drawings he made of Golgi-stained tissue, a stain named after the scientist who discovered it, Camillo Golgi. Scientists use several types of stains to visualize cells. Each stain works in a unique way, which causes them to look differently when viewed under a microscope. For example, a very common Nissl stain labels only the main part of the cell (i.e., the cell body; see left and middle panels of Figure 1). In contrast, a Golgi stain fills the cell body and all the processes that extend outward from it (see right panel of Figure 1). A more notable characteristic of a Golgi stain is that it only stains approximately 1– 2% of neurons (Pasternak & Woolsey, 1975; Smit & Colon, 1969), permitting the observer to distinguish one cell from another. These qualities allowed Cajal to examine the full anatomical structure of individual neurons for the first time. This significantly enhanced our appreciation of the intricate networks their processes form. Based on his observation of Golgi-stained tissue, Cajal suggested neurons were distinguishable processing units rather than continuous structures. This was in opposition to the dominant theory at the time proposed by Joseph von Gerlach, which stated that the nervous system was composed of a continuous network of nerves (for review see, Lopez-Munoz, Boya, & Alamo, 2006). Camillo Golgi himself had been an avid supporter of Gerlach’s theory. Despite their scientific disagreement, Cajal and Camillo Golgi shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1906 for their combined contribution to the advancement of science and our understanding of the structure of the nervous system. This seminal work paved the pathway to our current understanding of the basic structure of the nervous system described in this module (for review see: De Carlos & Borrell, 2007; Grant, 2007).
Before moving forward, there will be an introduction to some basic terminology regarding the anatomy of neurons in the section called “The Structure of the Neuron,” below. Once we have reviewed this fundamental framework, the remainder of the module will focus on the electrochemical signals through which neurons communicate. While the electrochemical process might sound intimidating, it will be broken down into digestible sections. The first subsection, “Resting Membrane Potential,” describes what occurs in a neuron at rest, when it is theoretically not receiving or sending signals. Building upon this knowledge, we will examine the electrical conductance that occurs within a single neuron when it receives signals. Finally, the module will conclude with a description of the electrical conductance, which results in communication between neurons through a release of chemicals. At the end of the module, you should have a broad concept of how each cell and large groups of cells send and receive information by electrical and chemical signals.
A note of encouragement: This module introduces a vast amount of technical terminology that at times may feel overwhelming. Do not get discouraged or bogged down in the details. Utilize the glossary at the end of the module as a quick reference guide; tab the glossary page so that you can easily refer to it while reading the module. The glossary contains all terms in bold typing. Terms in italics are additional significant terms that may appear in other modules but are not contained within the glossary. On your first read of this module, I suggest focusing on the broader concepts and functional aspects of the terms instead of trying to commit all the terminology to memory. That is right, I said read first! I highly suggest reading this module at least twice, once prior to and again following the course lecture on this material. Repetition is the best way to gain clarity and commit to memory the challenging concepts and detailed vocabulary presented here.