Neurons

The nervous system of the common laboratory fly, Drosophila melanogaster, contains around 100,000 neurons, the same number as a lobster. This number compares to 75 million in the mouse and 300 million in the octopus. A human brain contains around 86 billion neurons. Despite these very different numbers, the nervous systems of these animals control many of the same behaviors—from basic reflexes to more complicated behaviors like finding food and courting mates. The ability of neurons to communicate with each other as well as with other types of cells underlies all of these behaviors.

Most neurons share the same cellular components. But neurons are also highly specialized—different types of neurons have different sizes and shapes that relate to their functional roles.

Parts of a Neuron

Like other cells, each neuron has a cell body (or soma) that contains a nucleus, smooth and rough endoplasmic reticulum, Golgi apparatus, mitochondria, and other cellular components. Neurons also contain unique structures, illustrated in Figure 1 for receiving and sending the electrical signals that make neuronal communication possible. Dendrites are tree-like structures that extend away from the cell body to receive messages from other neurons at specialized junctions called synapses. Although some neurons do not have any dendrites, some types of neurons have multiple dendrites. Dendrites can have small protrusions called dendritic spines, which further increase surface area for possible synaptic connections.

Illustration shows a neuron. The main part of the cell body, called the soma, contains the nucleus. Branch-like dendrites project from three sides of the soma. A long, thin axon projects from the fourth side. The axon branches at the end. The tip of the axon is in close proximity to dendrites of an adjacent nerve cell. The narrow space between the axon and dendrites is called the synapse. Cells called oligodendrocytes are located next to the axon. Projections from the oligodendrocytes wrap around the axon, forming a myelin sheath. The myelin sheath is not continuous, and gaps where the axon is exposed are called nodes of Ranvier.

Figure 1. Neurons contain organelles common to many other cells, such as a nucleus and mitochondria. They also have more specialized structures, including dendrites and axons.

Once a signal is received by the dendrite, it then travels passively to the cell body. The cell body contains a specialized structure, the axon hillock that integrates signals from multiple synapses and serves as a junction between the cell body and an axon. An axon is a tube-like structure that propagates the integrated signal to specialized endings called axon terminals. These terminals in turn synapse on other neurons, muscle, or target organs. Chemicals released at axon terminals allow signals to be communicated to these other cells. Neurons usually have one or two axons, but some neurons, like amacrine cells in the retina, do not contain any axons. Some axons are covered with myelin, which acts as an insulator to minimize dissipation of the electrical signal as it travels down the axon, greatly increasing the speed on conduction. This insulation is important as the axon from a human motor neuron can be as long as a meter—from the base of the spine to the toes. The myelin sheath is not actually part of the neuron. Myelin is produced by glial cells. Along the axon there are periodic gaps in the myelin sheath. These gaps are called nodes of Ranvier and are sites where the signal is “recharged” as it travels along the axon.

It is important to note that a single neuron does not act alone—neuronal communication depends on the connections that neurons make with one another (as well as with other cells, like muscle cells). Dendrites from a single neuron may receive synaptic contact from many other neurons. For example, dendrites from a Purkinje cell in the cerebellum are thought to receive contact from as many as 200,000 other neurons.

Practice Question

Which of the following statements is false?

  1. The soma is the cell body of a nerve cell.
  2. Myelin sheath provides an insulating layer to the dendrites.
  3. Axons carry the signal from the soma to the target.
  4. Dendrites carry the signal to the soma.

Types of Neurons

There are different types of neurons, and the functional role of a given neuron is intimately dependent on its structure. There is an amazing diversity of neuron shapes and sizes found in different parts of the nervous system (and across species), as illustrated by the neurons shown in Figure 2.

Part A shows a pyramidal cell with two long, branched projections on either end of the soma. Dendrites branch from either side. Part B shows a Purkinje cell with highly branched dendrites opposite the axon. Part C shows cells with long, thin axons. The dendrites are less branched than in pyramidal or Purkinje cells.

Figure 2. There is great diversity in the size and shape of neurons throughout the nervous system. Examples include (a) a pyramidal cell from the cerebral cortex, (b) a Purkinje cell from the cerebellar cortex, and (c) olfactory cells from the olfactory epithelium and olfactory bulb.

While there are many defined neuron cell subtypes, neurons are broadly divided into four basic types: unipolar, bipolar, multipolar, and pseudounipolar. Figure 3 illustrates these four basic neuron types. Unipolar neurons have only one structure that extends away from the soma. These neurons are not found in vertebrates but are found in insects where they stimulate muscles or glands. A bipolar neuron has one axon and one dendrite extending from the soma. An example of a bipolar neuron is a retinal bipolar cell, which receives signals from photoreceptor cells that are sensitive to light and transmits these signals to ganglion cells that carry the signal to the brain. Multipolar neurons are the most common type of neuron. Each multipolar neuron contains one axon and multiple dendrites. Multipolar neurons can be found in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). An example of a multipolar neuron is a Purkinje cell in the cerebellum, which has many branching dendrites but only one axon. Pseudounipolar cells share characteristics with both unipolar and bipolar cells. A pseudounipolar cell has a single process that extends from the soma, like a unipolar cell, but this process later branches into two distinct structures, like a bipolar cell. Most sensory neurons are pseudounipolar and have an axon that branches into two extensions: one connected to dendrites that receive sensory information and another that transmits this information to the spinal cord.

The unipolar cell has a single, long axon extending from the cell body. The bipolar neuron has two axons projecting from opposite sides of the cell body. The multipolar neuron has one long axon and several short, highly branched axons extending in all directions. The pseudounipolar neuron has one axon that forms two branches a short distance from the cell body, each of which extends in a different direction.

Figure 3. Neurons are broadly divided into four main types based on the number and placement of axons: (1) unipolar, (2) bipolar, (3) multipolar, and (4) pseudounipolar.

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