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After studying this chapter, you should be able to:

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  • Describe the main morphologic features of synapses.
  • Distinguish between chemical and electrical transmission at synapses.
  • Describe fast and slow excitatory and inhibitory postsynaptic potentials, outline the ionic fluxes that underlie them, and explain how the potentials interact to generate action potentials.
  • Define and give examples of direct inhibition, indirect inhibition, presynaptic inhibition, and postsynaptic inhibition.
  • Describe the neuromuscular junction, and explain how action potentials in the motor neuron at the junction lead to contraction of the skeletal muscle.
  • Define denervation hypersensitivity.

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The “all-or-none” type of conduction seen in axons and skeletal muscle has been discussed in Chapters 4 and 5. Impulses are transmitted from one nerve cell to another cell at synapses. These are the junctions where the axon or some other portion of one cell (the presynaptic cell) terminates on the dendrites, soma, or axon of another neuron (Figure 6–1) or, in some cases, a muscle or gland cell (the postsynaptic cell). Cell-to-cell communication occurs across either a chemical or electrical synapse. At chemical synapses, a synaptic cleft separates the terminal of the presynaptic cell from the postsynaptic cell. An impulse in the presynaptic axon causes secretion of a chemical that diffuses across the synaptic cleft and binds to receptors on the surface of the postsynaptic cell. This triggers events that open or close channels in the membrane of the postsynaptic cell. In electrical synapses, the membranes of the presynaptic and postsynaptic neurons come close together, and gap junctions form between the cells (see Chapter 2). Like the intercellular junctions in other tissues, these junctions form low-resistance bridges through which ions can pass with relative ease. There are also a few conjoint synapses in which transmission is both electrical and chemical.

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Figure 6–1
Graphic Jump Location

Synapses on a typical motor neuron. The neuron has dendrites (1), an axon (2), and a prominent nucleus (3). Note that rough endoplasmic reticulum extends into the dendrites but not into the axon. Many different axons converge on the neuron, and their terminal boutons form axodendritic (4) and axosomatic (5) synapses. (6) Myelin sheath. (Reproduced with permission from Krstic RV: Ultrastructure of the Mammalian Cell. Springer, 1979.)

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Regardless of the type of synapse, transmission is not a simple transmission of an action potential from the presynaptic to the postsynaptic cell. The effects of discharge at individual synaptic endings can be excitatory or inhibitory, and when the postsynaptic cell is a neuron, the summation of all the excitatory and inhibitory effects determines whether an action potential is generated. Thus, synaptic transmission is a complex process that permits the grading and adjustment of neural activity necessary for normal function. Because most synaptic transmission is chemical, consideration in this chapter is limited to chemical transmission unless otherwise specified.

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Transmission from nerve to muscle ...

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