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Why nerve cells work faster than the theory allows

With accuracy unknown until now, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization and the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Göttingen together with the neurophysiologist Maxim Volgushev from the Ruhr-Universität Bochum have analyzed, by which rules, the nerve cells in the cerebral cortex decide to send out impulses.

They surprisingly found, that the high flexibility and speed with which these cells work cannot be explained using the present, central model of neurophysiology, the Hodgkin-Huxley model. Their findings suggest that the sodium channels, which open in the cell membranes during a nerve impulse, do not work independently of each other, as assumed so far, but support each other during the opening process. This new type of mechanism appears to help the cells transmit fast changing signals and suppress slow signals.

Every living cell maintains a voltage difference across its cell membrane. Nerve cells distinguish themselves from other cells in that they use this voltage difference to process and transmit messages. When a nerve cell receives an impulse, the voltage across the cell membrane is reversed. This "action potential" spreads out through the long appendages of the cell with high speed. At the end of the appendages it is transmitted to other cells. In 1952, Alan Lloyd Hodgkin and Andrew Fielding Huxley described in a mathematical model how such an action potential originates on the basis of measurements on neurons of the squid. The Hodgkin-Huxley model, for which the scientists later received the Nobel Prize, has since then served to explain the signal processes in all neurons.

According to the Hodgkin-Huxley model, an action potential is initiated when the voltage across the membrane of the nerve cell reaches to a certain threshold value. Voltage gated sodium channels react to this voltage change by opening up and triggering an avalanche-like reaction. Positively charged sodium ions
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Source:Max-Planck-Gesellschaft


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