The Synapse

synapse, or synaptic cleft, is the gap that separates adjacent neurons or a neuron and a muscle. Transmission of an impulse across a synapse, from presynaptic cell to postsynaptic cell, is chemical. In chemical synapses, action potentials are transferred across the synapse by the diffusion of chemicals, as follows:

  1. Calcium (Ca 2+) gates open. When an action potential reaches the end of an axon, the depolarization of the membrane causes gated channels to open that allow Ca 2+ to enter.

  2. Synaptic vesicles release a neurotransmitter. The influx of Ca 2+ into the terminal end of the axon causes synaptic vesicles to merge with the presynaptic membrane, releasing a neurotransmitter into the synaptic cleft.

  3. The neurotransmitter binds with postsynaptic receptors. The neurotransmitter diffuses across the synaptic cleft and binds with specialized protein receptors on the postsynaptic membrane. Different proteins are receptors for different neurotransmitters.

  4. The postsynaptic membrane is excited or inhibited. Depending upon the kind of neurotransmitter and the kind of membrane receptor, there are two possible outcomes for the postsynaptic membrane, both of which are graded potentials:

    • If positive ion gates open (allowing more Na + and Ca 2+ to enter than K + to exit), the membrane becomes depolarized, which results in an excitatory postsynaptic potential (EPSP). If the threshold potential is exceeded, an action potential is generated.

    • If K + or chlorine ion (Cl ) gates open (allowing K + to exit or Cl to enter), the membrane becomes more polarized (hyperpolarized), which results in an inhibitory postsynaptic potential (IPSP). As a result, it becomes more difficult to generate an action potential on this membrane.

5.  The neurotransmitter is degraded and recycled. After the neurotransmitter binds to the                       postsynaptic membrane receptors, it is either transported back to and reabsorbed by the secreting       neuron or broken down by enzymes in the synaptic cleft that come from the postsynaptic                   membrane. For example, the common neurotransmitter acetylcholine (ACh) is broken down by         acetylcholinesterase (AChE). Reabsorbed and degraded neurotransmitters are recycled by the             structures in the presynaptic area.

Here are some of the common neurotransmitters and the kinds of activity they generate:

  • Acetylcholine (ACh) is commonly secreted at neuromuscular junctions, the gaps between motor neurons and skeletal muscle cells, where it stimulates muscles to contract by opening gated positive ion channels.

  • Epinephrine, norepinephrine (NE), dopamine, and serotonin are derived from amino acids and are secreted mostly between neurons of the CNS. Norepinephrine is also found in the peripheral nervous system (PNS).

  • Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) is usually an inhibitory neurotransmitter (opening gated Cl  channels) among neurons in the brain.