Chemical synapse
Overview
Chemical synapses are specialized junctions through which neuron
Neuron
A neuron is an electrically excitable cell that processes and transmits information by electrical and chemical signaling. Chemical signaling occurs via synapses, specialized connections with other cells. Neurons connect to each other to form networks. Neurons are the core components of the nervous...

s signal to each other and to non-neuronal cells such as those in muscle
Neuromuscular junction
A neuromuscular junction is the synapse or junction of the axon terminal of a motor neuron with the motor end plate, the highly-excitable region of muscle fiber plasma membrane responsible for initiation of action potentials across the muscle's surface, ultimately causing the muscle to contract...

s or gland
Gland
A gland is an organ in an animal's body that synthesizes a substance for release of substances such as hormones or breast milk, often into the bloodstream or into cavities inside the body or its outer surface .- Types :...

s. Chemical synapses allow neurons to form circuits within the central nervous system
Central nervous system
The central nervous system is the part of the nervous system that integrates the information that it receives from, and coordinates the activity of, all parts of the bodies of bilaterian animals—that is, all multicellular animals except sponges and radially symmetric animals such as jellyfish...

. They are crucial to the biological computations that underlie perception and thought. They allow the nervous system to connect to and control other systems of the body.

At a chemical synapse, one neuron releases neurotransmitter
Neurotransmitter
Neurotransmitters are endogenous chemicals that transmit signals from a neuron to a target cell across a synapse. Neurotransmitters are packaged into synaptic vesicles clustered beneath the membrane on the presynaptic side of a synapse, and are released into the synaptic cleft, where they bind to...

 molecules into a small space (the synaptic cleft) that is adjacent to another neuron.
Encyclopedia
Chemical synapses are specialized junctions through which neuron
Neuron
A neuron is an electrically excitable cell that processes and transmits information by electrical and chemical signaling. Chemical signaling occurs via synapses, specialized connections with other cells. Neurons connect to each other to form networks. Neurons are the core components of the nervous...

s signal to each other and to non-neuronal cells such as those in muscle
Neuromuscular junction
A neuromuscular junction is the synapse or junction of the axon terminal of a motor neuron with the motor end plate, the highly-excitable region of muscle fiber plasma membrane responsible for initiation of action potentials across the muscle's surface, ultimately causing the muscle to contract...

s or gland
Gland
A gland is an organ in an animal's body that synthesizes a substance for release of substances such as hormones or breast milk, often into the bloodstream or into cavities inside the body or its outer surface .- Types :...

s. Chemical synapses allow neurons to form circuits within the central nervous system
Central nervous system
The central nervous system is the part of the nervous system that integrates the information that it receives from, and coordinates the activity of, all parts of the bodies of bilaterian animals—that is, all multicellular animals except sponges and radially symmetric animals such as jellyfish...

. They are crucial to the biological computations that underlie perception and thought. They allow the nervous system to connect to and control other systems of the body.

At a chemical synapse, one neuron releases neurotransmitter
Neurotransmitter
Neurotransmitters are endogenous chemicals that transmit signals from a neuron to a target cell across a synapse. Neurotransmitters are packaged into synaptic vesicles clustered beneath the membrane on the presynaptic side of a synapse, and are released into the synaptic cleft, where they bind to...

 molecules into a small space (the synaptic cleft) that is adjacent to another neuron. These molecules then bind to the neuroreceptors on the receiving cell's side of the synaptic cleft. Finally, the neurotransmitters must be cleared out of the synapse efficiently so that the synapse can be ready to function again as soon as possible.

The adult human brain is estimated to contain from 1014 to 5 × 1014 (100–500 trillion) synapses. Every cubic millimeter of cerebral cortex contains roughly a billion of them.

The word "synapse" comes from "synaptein", which Sir Charles Scott Sherrington
Charles Scott Sherrington
Sir Charles Scott Sherrington, OM, GBE, PRS was an English neurophysiologist, histologist, bacteriologist, and a pathologist, Nobel laureate and president of the Royal Society in the early 1920s...

 and colleagues coined from the Greek "syn-" ("together") and "haptein" ("to clasp"). Chemical synapses are not the only type of biological synapse: electrical
Electrical synapse
An electrical synapse is a mechanical and electrically conductive link between two abutting neurons that is formed at a narrow gap between the pre- and postsynaptic neurons known as a gap junction. At gap junctions, such cells approach within about 3.5 nm of each other, a much shorter...

 and immunological synapse
Immunological synapse
In immunology, an immunological synapse is the interface between an antigen-presenting cell and a lymphocyte. It was first discovered by Abraham Kupfer at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver and the term was coined by Michael Dustin at NYU who studied it in further detail...

s also exist. Without a qualifier, however, "synapse" commonly means chemical synapse.

Structure

Synapses are functional connections between neurons, or between neurons and other types of cells. A typical neuron gives rise to several thousand synapses, although there are some types that make far fewer. Most synapses connect axon
Axon
An axon is a long, slender projection of a nerve cell, or neuron, that conducts electrical impulses away from the neuron's cell body or soma....

s to dendrite
Dendrite
Dendrites are the branched projections of a neuron that act to conduct the electrochemical stimulation received from other neural cells to the cell body, or soma, of the neuron from which the dendrites project...

s, but there are also other types of connections, including axon-to-cell-body, axon-to-axon, and dendrite-to-dendrite. Synapses are generally too small to be recognizable using a light microscope except as points where the membranes of two cells appear to touch, but their cellular elements can be visualized clearly using an electron microscope
Electron microscope
An electron microscope is a type of microscope that uses a beam of electrons to illuminate the specimen and produce a magnified image. Electron microscopes have a greater resolving power than a light-powered optical microscope, because electrons have wavelengths about 100,000 times shorter than...

.

Chemical synapses pass information directionally from a presynaptic cell to a postsynaptic cell and are therefore asymmetric in structure and function. The presynaptic terminal, or synaptic bouton, is a specialized area within the axon of the presynaptic cell that contains neurotransmitter
Neurotransmitter
Neurotransmitters are endogenous chemicals that transmit signals from a neuron to a target cell across a synapse. Neurotransmitters are packaged into synaptic vesicles clustered beneath the membrane on the presynaptic side of a synapse, and are released into the synaptic cleft, where they bind to...

s enclosed in small membrane-bound spheres called synaptic vesicle
Synaptic vesicle
In a neuron, synaptic vesicles store various neurotransmitters that are released at the synapse. The release is regulated by a voltage-dependent calcium channel. Vesicles are essential for propagating nerve impulses between neurons and are constantly recreated by the cell...

s. Synaptic vesicles are docked at the presynaptic plasma membrane at regions called active zone
Active zone
The active zone is a term first used by Couteaux and Pecot-Dechavassinein in 1970 and is defined in the neuron as the site of neurotransmitter release. Neurons contain structures called synapses that allow for the communication from one neuron to another...

s.

Immediately opposite is a region of the postsynaptic cell containing neurotransmitter receptor
Receptor (biochemistry)
In biochemistry, a receptor is a molecule found on the surface of a cell, which receives specific chemical signals from neighbouring cells or the wider environment within an organism...

s; for synapses between two neurons the postsynaptic region may be found on the dendrites or cell body. Immediately behind the postsynaptic membrane is an elaborate complex of interlinked proteins called the postsynaptic density
Postsynaptic density
The postsynaptic density is a protein dense specialization attached to the postsynaptic membrane. PSDs were originally identified by electron microscopy as an electron-dense region at the membrane of a postsynaptic neuron...

 (PSD).

Proteins in the PSD are involved in anchoring and trafficking neurotransmitter receptors and modulating the activity of these receptors. The receptors and PSDs are often found in specialized protrusions from the main dendritic shaft called dendritic spine
Dendritic spine
A dendritic spine is a small membranous protrusion from a neuron's dendrite that typically receives input from a single synapse of an axon. Dendritic spines serve as a storage site for synaptic strength and help transmit electrical signals to the neuron's cell body...

s.

Synapses may be described as symmetric or asymmetric. When examined under an electron microscope, asymmetric synapses are characterized by rounded vesicles in the presynaptic cell, and a prominent postsynaptic density. Asymmetric synapses are typically excitatory. Symmetric synapses in contrast have flattened or elongated vesicles, and do not contain a prominent postsynaptic density. Symmetric synapses are typically inhibitory.

Between the pre- and postsynaptic cells is a gap about 20 nm wide called the synaptic cleft. The small volume of the cleft allows neurotransmitter concentration to be raised and lowered rapidly.

Overview

Here is a summary of the sequence of events that take place in synaptic transmission from a presynaptic neuron to a postsynaptic cell. Each step is explained in more detail below. Note that with the exception of the final step, the entire process may run only a few tenths of a millisecond, in the fastest synapses.

  1. The process begins with a wave of electrochemical excitation called an action potential
    Action potential
    In physiology, an action potential is a short-lasting event in which the electrical membrane potential of a cell rapidly rises and falls, following a consistent trajectory. Action potentials occur in several types of animal cells, called excitable cells, which include neurons, muscle cells, and...

     traveling along the membrane of the presynaptic cell, until it reaches the synapse.
  2. The electrical depolarization
    Depolarization
    In biology, depolarization is a change in a cell's membrane potential, making it more positive, or less negative. In neurons and some other cells, a large enough depolarization may result in an action potential...

     of the membrane at the synapse causes channels to open that are permeable to calcium ions.
  3. Calcium ions flow through the presynaptic membrane, rapidly increasing the calcium concentration in the interior.
  4. The high calcium concentration activates a set of calcium-sensitive proteins attached to vesicles
    Synaptic vesicle
    In a neuron, synaptic vesicles store various neurotransmitters that are released at the synapse. The release is regulated by a voltage-dependent calcium channel. Vesicles are essential for propagating nerve impulses between neurons and are constantly recreated by the cell...

     that contain a neurotransmitter
    Neurotransmitter
    Neurotransmitters are endogenous chemicals that transmit signals from a neuron to a target cell across a synapse. Neurotransmitters are packaged into synaptic vesicles clustered beneath the membrane on the presynaptic side of a synapse, and are released into the synaptic cleft, where they bind to...

     chemical.
  5. These proteins change shape, causing the membranes of some "docked" vesicles to fuse with the membrane of the presynaptic cell, thereby opening the vesicles and dumping their neurotransmitter contents into the synaptic cleft, the narrow space between the membranes of the pre- and postsynaptic cells.
  6. The neurotransmitter diffuses within the cleft. Some of it escapes, but some of it binds to chemical receptor molecules located on the membrane of the postsynaptic cell.
  7. The binding of neurotransmitter causes the receptor molecule to be activated in some way. Several types of activation are possible, as described in more detail below. In any case, this is the key step by which the synaptic process affects the behavior of the postsynaptic cell.
  8. Due to thermal shaking, neurotransmitter molecules eventually break loose from the receptors and drift away.
  9. The neurotransmitter is either reabsorbed by the presynaptic cell, and then repackaged for future release, or else it is broken down metabolically.

Neurotransmitter release

The release of a neurotransmitter is triggered by the arrival of a nerve impulse (or action potential
Action potential
In physiology, an action potential is a short-lasting event in which the electrical membrane potential of a cell rapidly rises and falls, following a consistent trajectory. Action potentials occur in several types of animal cells, called excitable cells, which include neurons, muscle cells, and...

) and occurs through an unusually rapid process of cellular secretion (exocytosis
Exocytosis
Exocytosis , also known as 'The peni-cytosis', is the durable process by which a cell directs the contents of secretory vesicles out of the cell membrane...

). Within the presynaptic nerve terminal, vesicle
Vesicle (biology)
A vesicle is a bubble of liquid within another liquid, a supramolecular assembly made up of many different molecules. More technically, a vesicle is a small membrane-enclosed sack that can store or transport substances. Vesicles can form naturally because of the properties of lipid membranes , or...

s containing neurotransmitter are localized near the synaptic membrane. The arriving action potential produces an influx of calcium ions through voltage-dependent, calcium-selective ion channels
Voltage-dependent calcium channel
Voltage-dependent calcium channels are a group of voltage-gated ion channels found in excitable cells with a permeability to the ion Ca2+...

 at the down stroke of the action potential (tail current). Calcium ions then bind with the proteins found within the membranes of the synaptic vesicles, allowing the vesicles to fuse with the presynaptic membrane, resulting in the creation of a fusion pore. The vesicles then release their contents to the synaptic cleft through this fusion pore within 180 µsec
Microsecond
A microsecond is an SI unit of time equal to one millionth of a second. Its symbol is µs.A microsecond is equal to 1000 nanoseconds or 1/1000 millisecond...

 of calcium entry. Vesicle fusion is driven by the action of a set of proteins in the presynaptic terminal known as SNAREs
SNARE (protein)
SNARE proteins are a large protein superfamily consisting of more than 60 members in yeast and mammalian cells....

. As a whole, the protein complex or structure that mediates the docking and fusion of presynaptic vesicles is called the active zone. The membrane added by this fusion is later retrieved by endocytosis
Endocytosis
Endocytosis is a process by which cells absorb molecules by engulfing them. It is used by all cells of the body because most substances important to them are large polar molecules that cannot pass through the hydrophobic plasma or cell membrane...

 and recycled
Endocytic cycle
Most animal cells take up portions of their surface plasma membranes in a process called endocytosis. The main route of endocytosis is the coated pit, which buds into a cell to form a cytoplasmic vesicle — a clathrin-coated vesicle. The membrane so internalised is processed in a series of...

 for the formation of fresh neurotransmitter-filled vesicles.

Receptor binding

Receptors on the opposite side of the synaptic gap bind neurotransmitter molecules. Receptors can respond in either of two general ways. First, the receptors may directly open ligand-gated ion channel
Ligand-gated ion channel
Ligand-gated ion channels are one type of ionotropic receptor or channel-linked receptor. They are a group of transmembrane ion channels that are opened or closed in response to the binding of a chemical messenger , such as a neurotransmitter.The binding site of endogenous ligands on LGICs...

s in the postsynaptic cell membrane, causing ions to enter or exit the cell and changing the local transmembrane potential. The resulting change in voltage
Voltage
Voltage, otherwise known as electrical potential difference or electric tension is the difference in electric potential between two points — or the difference in electric potential energy per unit charge between two points...

 is called a postsynaptic potential
Postsynaptic potential
Postsynaptic potentials are changes in the membrane potential of the postsynaptic terminal of a chemical synapse. Postsynaptic potentials are graded potentials, and should not be confused with action potentials although their function is to initiate or inhibit action potentials...

. In general, the result is excitatory, in the case of depolarizing
Depolarization
In biology, depolarization is a change in a cell's membrane potential, making it more positive, or less negative. In neurons and some other cells, a large enough depolarization may result in an action potential...

 currents, or inhibitory in the case of hyperpolarizing
Hyperpolarization (biology)
Hyperpolarization is a change in a cell's membrane potential that makes it more negative. It is the opposite of a depolarization.Hyperpolarization is often caused by efflux of K+ through K+ channels, or influx of Cl– through Cl– channels. On the other hand, influx of cations, e.g...

 currents. Whether a synapse is excitatory or inhibitory depends on what type(s) of ion channel conduct the postsynaptic current(s), which in turn is a function of the type of receptors and neurotransmitter employed at the synapse. The second way a receptor can affect membrane potential is by modulating the production of chemical messengers
Second messenger system
Second messengers are molecules that relay signals from receptors on the cell surface to target molecules inside the cell, in the cytoplasm or nucleus. They relay the signals of hormones like epinephrine , growth factors, and others, and cause some kind of change in the activity of the cell...

 inside the postsynaptic neuron. These second messengers can then amplify the inhibitory or excitatory response to neurotransmitters.

Termination

After a neurotransmitter molecule binds to a receptor molecule, it must be removed to allow for the postsynaptic membrane to continue to relay subsequent EPSPs and/or IPSPs. This removal can happen through one or more processes:
  • The neurotransmitter may diffuse away due to thermally-induced oscillations of both it and the receptor, making it available to be broken down metabolically outside the neuron or to be reabsorbed.
  • Enzymes within the subsynaptic membrane may inactivate/metabolize the neurotransmitter.

  • Reuptake
    Reuptake
    Reuptake, or re-uptake, is the reabsorption of a neurotransmitter by a neurotransmitter transporter of a pre-synaptic neuron after it has performed its function of transmitting a neural impulse....

     pumps may actively pump the neurotransmitter back into the presynaptic axon terminal for reprocessing and re-release following a later action potential.


The time frame for these "clearing" processes varies greatly for different types of synapses, ranging from a few tenths of a millisecond for the fastest, to several seconds for the slowest.

Synaptic strength

The strength of a synapse is defined by the amplitude of the change in membrane potential as a result of a presynaptic action potential. A "synapse" usually refers to a group of connections (or individual synapses) from the presynaptic neuron to the postsynaptic neuron. The strength of a synapse can be accounted for by the number and size of each of the connections from the presynaptic neuron to the postsynaptic neuron. The amplitude of postsynaptic potentials (PSPs) can be as low as 0.4mV to as high as 20mV. The amplitude of a PSP can be modulated by neuromodulators or can change as a result of previous activity. Changes in synaptic strength can be short-term, lasting seconds to minutes, or long-term (long-term potentiation
Long-term potentiation
In neuroscience, long-term potentiation is a long-lasting enhancement in signal transmission between two neurons that results from stimulating them synchronously. It is one of several phenomena underlying synaptic plasticity, the ability of chemical synapses to change their strength...

, or LTP), lasting hours. Learning and memory are believed to result from long-term changes in synaptic strength, via a mechanism known as synaptic plasticity
Synaptic plasticity
In neuroscience, synaptic plasticity is the ability of the connection, or synapse, between two neurons to change in strength in response to either use or disuse of transmission over synaptic pathways. Plastic change also results from the alteration of the number of receptors located on a synapse...

.

Receptor desensitization

Desensitization of the postsynaptic receptors is a decrease in response to the same neurotransmitter stimulus. It means that the strength of a synapse may in effect diminish as a train of action potentials arrive in rapid succession – a phenomenon that gives rise to the so-called frequency dependence of synapses. The nervous system exploits this property for computational purposes, and can tune its synapses through such means as phosphorylation
Phosphorylation
Phosphorylation is the addition of a phosphate group to a protein or other organic molecule. Phosphorylation activates or deactivates many protein enzymes....

 of the proteins involved.

Synaptic plasticity

Synaptic transmission can be changed by previous activity. These changes are called synaptic plasticity and may result in either a decrease in the efficacy of the synapse, called depression, or an increase in efficacy, called potentiation. These changes can either be long-term or short-term. Forms of short-term plasticity include synaptic fatigue
Synaptic fatigue
Synaptic fatigue, or short-term synaptic depression, is an activity-dependent form of short-term plasticity that affects neuronal efficacy and results in the temporary inability to fire and therefore transmit an input signal. It is thought to be a form of negative feedback in order to...

 or depression and synaptic augmentation. Forms of long-term plasticity include long-term depression
Long-term depression
Long-term depression , in neurophysiology, is an activity-dependent reduction in the efficacy of neuronal synapses lasting hours or longer. LTD occurs in many areas of the CNS with varying mechanisms depending upon brain region and developmental progress...

 and long-term potentiation
Long-term potentiation
In neuroscience, long-term potentiation is a long-lasting enhancement in signal transmission between two neurons that results from stimulating them synchronously. It is one of several phenomena underlying synaptic plasticity, the ability of chemical synapses to change their strength...

. Synaptic plasticity can be either homosynaptic (occurring at a single synapse) or heterosynaptic (occurring at multiple synapses).

Homosynaptic plasticity


Homosynaptic plasticity (or also homotropic modulation) is a change in the synaptic strength that results from the history of activity at a particular synapse. This can result from changes in presynaptic calcium as well as feedback onto presynaptic receptors, i.e. a form of autocrine signaling. Homosynaptic plasticity can affect the number and replenishment rate of vesicles or it can affect the relationship between calcium and vesicle release. Homosynaptic plasticity can also be postsynaptic in nature. It can result in either an increase or decrease in synaptic strength.

One example is neurons of the sympathetic nervous system
Sympathetic nervous system
The sympathetic nervous system is one of the three parts of the autonomic nervous system, along with the enteric and parasympathetic systems. Its general action is to mobilize the body's nervous system fight-or-flight response...

 (SNS), which release noradrenaline, which, besides affecting postsynaptic receptors, also affects presynaptic α2-adrenergic receptors, inhibiting further release of noradrenaline. This effect is utilized with clonidine
Clonidine
Clonidine is a sympatholytic medication used to treat medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, some pain conditions, ADHD and anxiety/panic disorder...

 to perform inhibitory effects on the SNS.

Heterosynaptic plasticity


Heterosynaptic plasticity (or also heterotropic modulation) is a change in synaptic strength that results from the activity of other neurons. Again, the plasticity can alter the number of vesicles or their replenishment rate or the relationship between calcium and vesicle release. Additionally, it could directly affect calcium influx. Heterosynaptic plasticity can also be postsynaptic in nature, affecting receptor sensitivity.

One example is again neurons of the sympathetic nervous system
Sympathetic nervous system
The sympathetic nervous system is one of the three parts of the autonomic nervous system, along with the enteric and parasympathetic systems. Its general action is to mobilize the body's nervous system fight-or-flight response...

, which release noradrenaline, which, in addition, generates an inhibitory effect on presynaptic terminals of neurons of the parasympathetic nervous system
Parasympathetic nervous system
The parasympathetic nervous system is one of the two main divisions of the autonomic nervous system . The ANS is responsible for regulation of internal organs and glands, which occurs unconsciously...

.

Integration of synaptic inputs

In general, if an excitatory synapse is strong enough, an action potential
Action potential
In physiology, an action potential is a short-lasting event in which the electrical membrane potential of a cell rapidly rises and falls, following a consistent trajectory. Action potentials occur in several types of animal cells, called excitable cells, which include neurons, muscle cells, and...

 in the presynaptic neuron will trigger an action potential in the postsynaptic cell. In many cases the excitatory postsynaptic potential
Excitatory postsynaptic potential
In neuroscience, an excitatory postsynaptic potential is a temporary depolarization of postsynaptic membrane potential caused by the flow of positively charged ions into the postsynaptic cell as a result of opening of ligand-sensitive channels...

 (EPSP) will not reach the threshold
Action potential
In physiology, an action potential is a short-lasting event in which the electrical membrane potential of a cell rapidly rises and falls, following a consistent trajectory. Action potentials occur in several types of animal cells, called excitable cells, which include neurons, muscle cells, and...

 for eliciting an action potential. When action potentials from multiple presynaptic neurons fire simultaneously, or if a single presynaptic neuron fires at a high enough frequency, the EPSPs can overlap and summate. If enough EPSPs overlap, the summated EPSP can reach the threshold for initiating an action potential. This process is known as summation, and can serve as a high pass filter for neurons.

On the other hand, a presynaptic neuron releasing an inhibitory neurotransmitter, such as GABA
Gabâ
Gabâ or gabaa, for the people in many parts of the Philippines), is the concept of a non-human and non-divine, imminent retribution. A sort of negative karma, it is generally seen as an evil effect on a person because of their wrongdoings or transgressions...

, can cause an inhibitory postsynaptic potential
Inhibitory postsynaptic potential
An inhibitory postsynaptic potential is a synaptic potential that decreases the chance that a future action potential will occur in a postsynaptic neuron or α-motoneuron...

 (IPSP) in the postsynaptic neuron, bringing the membrane potential
Membrane potential
Membrane potential is the difference in electrical potential between the interior and exterior of a biological cell. All animal cells are surrounded by a plasma membrane composed of a lipid bilayer with a variety of types of proteins embedded in it...

 farther away from the threshold, decreasing its excitability and making it more difficult for the neuron to initiate an action potential. If an IPSP overlaps with an EPSP, the IPSP can in many cases prevent the neuron from firing an action potential. In this way, the output of a neuron may depend on the input of many different neurons, each of which may have a different degree of influence, depending on the strength and type of synapse with that neuron. John Carew Eccles
John Carew Eccles
John Carew Eccles, AC FRS FRACP FRSNZ FAAS was an Australian neurophysiologist who won the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on the synapse. He shared the prize with Andrew Huxley and Alan Lloyd Hodgkin....

 performed some of the important early experiments on synaptic integration, for which he received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1963. Complex input/output relationships form the basis of transistor
Transistor
A transistor is a semiconductor device used to amplify and switch electronic signals and power. It is composed of a semiconductor material with at least three terminals for connection to an external circuit. A voltage or current applied to one pair of the transistor's terminals changes the current...

-based computations in computer
Computer
A computer is a programmable machine designed to sequentially and automatically carry out a sequence of arithmetic or logical operations. The particular sequence of operations can be changed readily, allowing the computer to solve more than one kind of problem...

s, and are thought to figure similarly in neural circuits.

Volume transmission

When a neurotransmitter is released at a synapse, it reaches its highest concentration inside the narrow space of the synaptic cleft, but some of it is certain to diffuse away before being reabsorbed or broken down. If it diffuses away, it has the potential to activate receptors that are located either at other synapses or on the membrane away from any synapse. The extrasynaptic activity of a neurotransmitter is known as volume transmission. It is well established that such effects occur to some degree, but their functional importance has long been a matter of controversy.

Recent work indicates that volume transmission may be the predominant mode of interaction for some special types of neurons. In the mammalian cerebral cortex, a class of neurons called neurogliaform cells can inhibit other nearby cortical neurons by releasing the neurotransmitter GABA into the extracellular space. Approximately 78% of neurogliaforms do not form classical synapses. This may be the first definitive example of neurons communicating chemically where synapses are not present.

Relationship to electrical synapses

An electrical synapse
Electrical synapse
An electrical synapse is a mechanical and electrically conductive link between two abutting neurons that is formed at a narrow gap between the pre- and postsynaptic neurons known as a gap junction. At gap junctions, such cells approach within about 3.5 nm of each other, a much shorter...

 is an electrically conductive
Electrical conductor
In physics and electrical engineering, a conductor is a material which contains movable electric charges. In metallic conductors such as copper or aluminum, the movable charged particles are electrons...

 link between two abutting neuron
Neuron
A neuron is an electrically excitable cell that processes and transmits information by electrical and chemical signaling. Chemical signaling occurs via synapses, specialized connections with other cells. Neurons connect to each other to form networks. Neurons are the core components of the nervous...

s that is formed at a narrow gap between the pre- and postsynaptic cell
Cell (biology)
The cell is the basic structural and functional unit of all known living organisms. It is the smallest unit of life that is classified as a living thing, and is often called the building block of life. The Alberts text discusses how the "cellular building blocks" move to shape developing embryos....

s, known as a gap junction
Gap junction
A gap junction or nexus is a specialized intercellular connection between a multitude of animal cell-types. It directly connects the cytoplasm of two cells, which allows various molecules and ions to pass freely between cells....

. At gap junctions, cells approach within about 3.5 nm
Nanometre
A nanometre is a unit of length in the metric system, equal to one billionth of a metre. The name combines the SI prefix nano- with the parent unit name metre .The nanometre is often used to express dimensions on the atomic scale: the diameter...

 of each other, rather than the 20 to 40 nm distance that separates cells at chemical synapses. As opposed to chemical synapses, the postsynaptic potential in electrical synapses is not caused by the opening of ion channels by chemical transmitters, but rather by direct electrical coupling between both neurons. Electrical synapses are faster than chemical synapses. Electrical synapses are found throughout the nervous system, including in the retina
Retina
The vertebrate retina is a light-sensitive tissue lining the inner surface of the eye. The optics of the eye create an image of the visual world on the retina, which serves much the same function as the film in a camera. Light striking the retina initiates a cascade of chemical and electrical...

, the reticular nucleus of the thalamus, the neocortex
Neocortex
The neocortex , also called the neopallium and isocortex , is a part of the brain of mammals. It is the outer layer of the cerebral hemispheres, and made up of six layers, labelled I to VI...

, and in the hippocampus
Hippocampus
The hippocampus is a major component of the brains of humans and other vertebrates. It belongs to the limbic system and plays important roles in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory and spatial navigation. Humans and other mammals have two hippocampi, one in...

. While chemical synapses are found between both excitatory and inhibitory neurons, electrical synapses are most commonly found between smaller local inhibitory neurons. Electrical synapses can exist between two axons, two dendrites, or between an axon and a dendrite. In some cases electrical synapses can be found within the same terminal of a chemical synapse, as in Mauthner cells.

Effects of drugs

One of the most important features of chemical synapses is that they are the site of action for the majority of psychoactive drugs. Synapses are affected by drugs such as curare, strychnine, cocaine, morphine, alcohol, LSD, and countless others. These drugs have different effects on synaptic function, and often are restricted to synapses that use a specific neurotransmitter. For example, curare
Curare
Curare is a common name for various arrow poisons originating from South America. The three main types of curare are:* tubocurare...

 is a poison which stops acetylcholine from depolarizing the postsynaptic membrane, causing paralysis. Strychnine
Strychnine
Strychnine is a highly toxic , colorless crystalline alkaloid used as a pesticide, particularly for killing small vertebrates such as birds and rodents. Strychnine causes muscular convulsions and eventually death through asphyxia or sheer exhaustion...

 blocks the inhibitory effects of the neurotransmitter glycine
Glycine
Glycine is an organic compound with the formula NH2CH2COOH. Having a hydrogen substituent as its 'side chain', glycine is the smallest of the 20 amino acids commonly found in proteins. Its codons are GGU, GGC, GGA, GGG cf. the genetic code.Glycine is a colourless, sweet-tasting crystalline solid...

, which causes the body to pick up and react to weaker and previously ignored stimuli, resulting in uncontrollable muscle spasms. Morphine
Morphine
Morphine is a potent opiate analgesic medication and is considered to be the prototypical opioid. It was first isolated in 1804 by Friedrich Sertürner, first distributed by same in 1817, and first commercially sold by Merck in 1827, which at the time was a single small chemists' shop. It was more...

 acts on synapses that use endorphin
Endorphin
Endorphins are endogenous opioid peptides that function as neurotransmitters. They are produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus in vertebrates during exercise, excitement, pain, consumption of spicy food, love and orgasm, and they resemble the opiates in their abilities to produce...

 neurotransmitters, and alcohol
Alcohol
In chemistry, an alcohol is an organic compound in which the hydroxy functional group is bound to a carbon atom. In particular, this carbon center should be saturated, having single bonds to three other atoms....

 increases the inhibitory effects of the neurotransmitter GABA
Gabâ
Gabâ or gabaa, for the people in many parts of the Philippines), is the concept of a non-human and non-divine, imminent retribution. A sort of negative karma, it is generally seen as an evil effect on a person because of their wrongdoings or transgressions...

. LSD
LSD
Lysergic acid diethylamide, abbreviated LSD or LSD-25, also known as lysergide and colloquially as acid, is a semisynthetic psychedelic drug of the ergoline family, well known for its psychological effects which can include altered thinking processes, closed and open eye visuals, synaesthesia, an...

 interferes with synapses that use the neurotransmitter serotonin
Serotonin
Serotonin or 5-hydroxytryptamine is a monoamine neurotransmitter. Biochemically derived from tryptophan, serotonin is primarily found in the gastrointestinal tract, platelets, and in the central nervous system of animals including humans...

. Cocaine
Cocaine
Cocaine is a crystalline tropane alkaloid that is obtained from the leaves of the coca plant. The name comes from "coca" in addition to the alkaloid suffix -ine, forming cocaine. It is a stimulant of the central nervous system, an appetite suppressant, and a topical anesthetic...

 blocks reuptake of dopamine
Dopamine
Dopamine is a catecholamine neurotransmitter present in a wide variety of animals, including both vertebrates and invertebrates. In the brain, this substituted phenethylamine functions as a neurotransmitter, activating the five known types of dopamine receptors—D1, D2, D3, D4, and D5—and their...

 and therefore increases its effects.

See also

External links

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