What is a Neuron?

A neuron (also known as a neurone or nerve cell) is an electrically excitable cell that processes and transmits information through electrical and chemical signals. These signals between neurons occur via synapses, specialized connections with other cells.

Neurons can connect to each other to form neural networks. Neurons are the core components of the nervous system, which includes the brain, spinal cord–which together comprise the central nervous system (CNS)–and the ganglia of the peripheral nervous system (PNS) .

Specialized types of neurons include: sensory neurons which respond to touch, sound, light and all other stimuli affecting the cells of the sensory organs that then send signals to the spinal cord and brain, motor neurons that receive signals from the brain and spinal cord to cause muscle contractions and affect glandular outputs, and interneurons which connect neurons to other neurons within the same region of the brain, or spinal cord in neural networks.

A typical neuron possesses a cell body (soma), dendrites, and an axon. The term neurite is used to describe either a dendrite or an axon, particularly in its undifferentiated stage. Dendrites are thin structures that arise from the cell body, often extending for hundreds of micrometres and branching multiple times, giving rise to a complex “dendritic tree”. An axon is a special cellular extension that arises from the cell body at a site called the axon hillock and travels for a distance, as far as 1 meter in humans or even more in other species.

The cell body of a neuron frequently gives rise to multiple dendrites, but never to more than one axon, although the axon may branch hundreds of times before it terminates. At the majority of synapses, signals are sent from the axon of one neuron to a dendrite of another. There are, however, many exceptions to these rules: neurons that lack dendrites, neurons that have no axon, synapses that connect an axon to another axon or a dendrite to another dendrite, etc.

All neurons are electrically excitable, maintaining voltage gradients across their membranes by means of metabolically driven ion pumps, which combine with ion channels embedded in the membrane to generate intracellular-versus-extracellular concentration differences of ions such as sodium, potassium, chloride, and calcium.

Changes in the cross-membrane voltage can alter the function of voltage-dependent ion channels. If the voltage changes by a large enough amount, an all-or-none electrochemical pulse called an action potential is generated, which travels rapidly along the cell’s axon, and activates synaptic connections with other cells when it arrives.

Neurons do not undergo cell division. In most cases, neurons are generated by special types of stem cells. A type of glial cell, called astrocytes (named for being somewhat star-shaped), have also been observed to turn into neurons by virtue of the stem cell characteristic pluripotency. In humans, neurogenesis largely ceases during adulthood; but in two brain areas, the hippocampus and olfactory bulb, there is strong evidence for generation of substantial numbers of new neurons.

Neuron Overview

The features that define a neuron are electrical excitability and the presence of synapses, which are complex membrane junctions that transmit signals to other cells. The body’s neurons, plus the glial cells that give them structural and metabolic support, together constitute the nervous system. In vertebrates, the majority of neurons belong to the central nervous system, but some reside in peripheral ganglia, and many sensory neurons are situated in sensory organs such as the retina and cochlea.

Although neurons are very diverse and there are exceptions to nearly every rule, it is convenient to begin with a schematic description of the structure and function of a “typical” neuron. A typical neuron is divided into three parts: the soma or cell body, dendrites, and axon.

The soma is usually compact; the axon and dendrites are filaments that extrude from it. Dendrites typically branch profusely, getting thinner with each branching, and extending their farthest branches a few hundred micrometers from the soma. The axon leaves the soma at a swelling called the axon hillock, and can extend for great distances, giving rise to hundreds of branches.

Unlike dendrites, an axon usually maintains the same diameter as it extends. The soma may give rise to numerous dendrites, but never to more than one axon. Synaptic signals from other neurons are received by the soma and dendrites; signals to other neurons are transmitted by the axon. A typical synapse, then, is a contact between the axon of one neuron and a dendrite or soma of another.

Synaptic signals may be excitatory or inhibitory. If the net excitation received by a neuron over a short period of time is large enough, the neuron generates a brief pulse called an action potential, which originates at the soma and propagates rapidly along the axon, activating synapses onto other neurons as it goes. This is called saltatory conduction.

Many neurons fit the foregoing schema in every respect, but there are also exceptions to most parts of it. There are no neurons that lack a soma, but there are neurons that lack dendrites, and others that lack an axon. Furthermore, in addition to the typical axodendritic and axosomatic synapses, there are axoaxonic (axon-to-axon) and dendrodendritic (dendrite-to-dendrite) synapses.

The key to neural function is the synaptic signaling process, which is partly electrical and partly chemical. The electrical aspect depends on properties of the neuron’s membrane. Like all animal cells, the cell body of every neuron is enclosed by a plasma membrane, a bilayer of lipid molecules with many types of protein structures embedded in it.

A lipid bilayer is a powerful electrical insulator, but in neurons, many of the protein structures embedded in the membrane are electrically active. These include ion channels that permit electrically charged ions to flow across the membrane, and ion pumps that actively transport ions from one side of the membrane to the other. Most ion channels are permeable only to specific types of ions.

Some ion channels are voltage gated, meaning that they can be switched between open and closed states by altering the voltage difference across the membrane. Others are chemically gated, meaning that they can be switched between open and closed states by interactions with chemicals that diffuse through the extracellular fluid.

The interactions between ion channels and ion pumps produce a voltage difference across the membrane, typically a bit less than 1/10 of a volt at baseline. This voltage has two functions: first, it provides a power source for an assortment of voltage-dependent protein machinery that is embedded in the membrane; second, it provides a basis for electrical signal transmission between different parts of the membrane.

Neurons communicate by chemical and electrical synapses in a process known as neurotransmission, also called synaptic transmission. The fundamental process that triggers the release of neurotransmitters is the action potential, a propagating electrical signal that is generated by exploiting the electrically excitable membrane of the neuron. This is also known as a wave of depolarization.


neuron cell diagram

Complete neuron cell diagram by LadyofHats Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Neurons are highly specialized for the processing and transmission of cellular signals. Given their diversity of functions performed in different parts of the nervous system, there is, as expected, a wide variety in their shape, size, and electrochemical properties. For instance, the soma of a neuron can vary from 4 to 100 micrometers in diameter.

  • The soma is the body of the neuron. As it contains the nucleus, most protein synthesis occurs here. The nucleus can range from 3 to 18 micrometers in diameter.
  • The dendrites of a neuron are cellular extensions with many branches. This overall shape and structure is referred to metaphorically as a dendritic tree. This is where the majority of input to the neuron occurs via the dendritic spine.
  • The axon is a finer, cable-like projection that can extend tens, hundreds, or even tens of thousands of times the diameter of the soma in length. The axon carries nerve signals away from the soma (and also carries some types of information back to it). Many neurons have only one axon, but this axon may—and usually will—undergo extensive branching, enabling communication with many target cells.
  • The part of the axon where it emerges from the soma is called the axon hillock. Besides being an anatomical structure, the axon hillock is also the part of the neuron that has the greatest density of voltage-dependent sodium channels. This makes it the most easily excited part of the neuron and the spike initiation zone for the axon: in electrophysiological terms it has the most negative action potential threshold. While the axon and axon hillock are generally involved in information outflow, this region can also receive input from other neurons.

The axon terminal contains synapses, specialized structures where neurotransmitter chemicals are released to communicate with target neurons.

Although the canonical view of the neuron attributes dedicated functions to its various anatomical components, dendrites and axons often act in ways contrary to their so-called main function.

Axons and dendrites in the central nervous system are typically only about one micrometer thick, while some in the peripheral nervous system are much thicker. The soma is usually about 10–25 micrometers in diameter and often is not much larger than the cell nucleus it contains. The longest axon of a human motoneuron can be over a meter long, reaching from the base of the spine to the toes.

Sensory neurons have axons that run from the toes to the dorsal columns, over 1.5 meters in adults. Giraffes have single axons several meters in length running along the entire length of their necks. Much of what is known about axonal function comes from studying the squid giant axon, an ideal experimental preparation because of its relatively immense size (0.5–1 millimeters thick, several centimeters long).

Fully differentiated neurons are permanently postmitotic; however, recent research shows that additional neurons throughout the brain can originate from neural stem cells found throughout the brain but in particularly high concentrations in the subventricular zone and subgranular zone through the process of neurogenesis.

Action on other Neurons


Chemical synapse schema by user:Looie496 created file, from US National Institutes of Health, National Institute on . Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

A neuron affects other neurons by releasing a neurotransmitter that binds to chemical receptors. The effect upon the postsynaptic neuron is determined not by the presynaptic neuron or by the neurotransmitter, but by the type of receptor that is activated.

A neurotransmitter can be thought of as a key, and a receptor as a lock: the same type of key can here be used to open many different types of locks. Receptors can be classified broadly as excitatory (causing an increase in firing rate), inhibitory (causing a decrease in firing rate), or modulatory (causing long-lasting effects not directly related to firing rate).

The two most common neurotransmitters in the brain, glutamate and GABA, have actions that are largely consistent. Glutamate acts on several different types of receptors, and have effects that are excitatory at ionotropic receptors and a modulatory effect at metabotropic receptors. Similarly GABA acts on several different types of receptors, but all of them have effects (in adult animals, at least) that are inhibitory.

Because of this consistency, it is common for neuroscientists to simplify the terminology by referring to cells that release glutamate as “excitatory neurons”, and cells that release GABA as “inhibitory neurons”. Since over 90% of the neurons in the brain release either glutamate or GABA, these labels encompass the great majority of neurons. There are also other types of neurons that have consistent effects on their targets, for example “excitatory” motor neurons in the spinal cord that release acetylcholine, and “inhibitory” spinal neurons that release glycine.

The distinction between excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters is not absolute, however. Rather, it depends on the class of chemical receptors present on the postsynaptic neuron. In principle, a single neuron, releasing a single neurotransmitter, can have excitatory effects on some targets, inhibitory effects on others, and modulatory effects on others still. For example, photoreceptor cells in the retina constantly release the neurotransmitter glutamate in the absence of light.

So-called OFF bipolar cells are, like most neurons, excited by the released glutamate. However, neighboring target neurons called ON bipolar cells are instead inhibited by glutamate, because they lack the typical ionotropic glutamate receptors and instead express a class of inhibitory metabotropic glutamate receptors. When light is present, the photoreceptors cease releasing glutamate, which relieves the ON bipolar cells from inhibition, activating them; this simultaneously removes the excitation from the OFF bipolar cells, silencing them.

It is possible to identify the type of inhibitory effect a presynaptic neuron will have on a postsynaptic neuron, based on the proteins the presynaptic neuron expresses. Parvalbumin-expressing neurons typically dampen the output signal of the postsynaptic neuron in the visual cortex, whereas somatostatin-expressing neurons typically block dendritic inputs to the postsynaptic neuron.


Neurons communicate with one another via synapses, where the axon terminal or en passant boutons (terminals located along the length of the axon) of one cell impinges upon another neuron’s dendrite, soma or, less commonly, axon. Neurons such as Purkinje cells in the cerebellum can have over 1000 dendritic branches, making connections with tens of thousands of other cells; other neurons, such as the magnocellular neurons of the supraoptic nucleus, have only one or two dendrites, each of which receives thousands of synapses. Synapses can be excitatory or inhibitory and either increase or decrease activity in the target neuron.

In a chemical synapse, the process of synaptic transmission is as follows: when an action potential reaches the axon terminal, it opens voltage-gated calcium channels, allowing calcium ions to enter the terminal. Calcium causes synaptic vesicles filled with neurotransmitter molecules to fuse with the membrane, releasing their contents into the synaptic cleft.

The neurotransmitters diffuse across the synaptic cleft and activate receptors on the postsynaptic neuron. High cytosolic calcium in the axon terminal also triggers mitochondrial calcium uptake, which, in turn, activates mitochondrial energy metabolism to produce ATP to support continuous neurotransmission.

The human brain has a huge number of synapses. Each of the 1011 (one hundred billion) neurons has on average 7,000 synaptic connections to other neurons. It has been estimated that the brain of a three-year-old child has about 1015 synapses (1 quadrillion). This number declines with age, stabilizing by adulthood. Estimates vary for an adult, ranging from 1014 to 5 x 1014 synapses (100 to 500 trillion).

Mechanisms for Propagating Action Potentials

In 1937, John Zachary Young suggested that the squid giant axon could be used to study neuronal electrical properties. Being larger than but similar in nature to human neurons, squid cells were easier to study. By inserting electrodes into the giant squid axons, accurate measurements were made of the membrane potential.

The cell membrane of the axon and soma contain voltage-gated ion channels that allow the neuron to generate and propagate an electrical signal (an action potential). These signals are generated and propagated by charge-carrying ions including sodium (Na+), potassium (K+), chloride (Cl−), and calcium (Ca2+).

There are several stimuli that can activate a neuron leading to electrical activity, including pressure, stretch, chemical transmitters, and changes of the electric potential across the cell membrane. Stimuli cause specific ion-channels within the cell membrane to open, leading to a flow of ions through the cell membrane, changing the membrane potential.

Thin neurons and axons require less metabolic expense to produce and carry action potentials, but thicker axons convey impulses more rapidly. To minimize metabolic expense while maintaining rapid conduction, many neurons have insulating sheaths of myelin around their axons. The sheaths are formed by glial cells: oligodendrocytes in the central nervous system and Schwann cells in the peripheral nervous system.

The sheath enables action potentials to travel faster than in unmyelinated axons of the same diameter, whilst using less energy. The myelin sheath in peripheral nerves normally runs along the axon in sections about 1 mm long, punctuated by unsheathed nodes of Ranvier, which contain a high density of voltage-gated ion channels. Multiple sclerosis is a neurological disorder that results from demyelination of axons in the central nervous system.

Some neurons do not generate action potentials, but instead generate a graded electrical signal, which in turn causes graded neurotransmitter release. Such nonspiking neurons tend to be sensory neurons or interneurons, because they cannot carry signals long distances.

History of the Neuron

The term neuron was coined by the German anatomist Heinrich Wilhelm Waldeyer. The neuron’s place as the primary functional unit of the nervous system was first recognized in the early 20th century through the work of the Spanish anatomist Santiago Ramón y Cajal.

Ramón y Cajal proposed that neurons were discrete cells that communicated with each other via specialized junctions, or spaces, between cells. This became known as the neuron doctrine, one of the central tenets of modern neuroscience. To observe the structure of individual neurons, Ramón y Cajal improved a silver staining process known as Golgi’s method, which had been developed by his rival, Camillo Golgi.

Cajal’s improvement, which involved a technique he called “double impregnation”, is still in use. The silver impregnation stains are an extremely useful method for neuroanatomical investigations because, for reasons unknown, it stains a very small percentage of cells in a tissue, so one is able to see the complete micro structure of individual neurons without much overlap from other cells in the densely packed brain.

The neuron doctrine is the now fundamental idea that neurons are the basic structural and functional units of the nervous system. The theory was put forward by Santiago Ramón y Cajal in the late 19th century. It held that neurons are discrete cells (not connected in a meshwork), acting as metabolically distinct units.

Later discoveries yielded a few refinements to the simplest form of the doctrine. For example, glial cells, which are not considered neurons, play an essential role in information processing. Also, electrical synapses are more common than previously thought, meaning that there are direct, cytoplasmic connections between neurons. In fact, there are examples of neurons forming even tighter coupling: the squid giant axon arises from the fusion of multiple axons.

Ramón y Cajal also postulated the Law of Dynamic Polarization, which states that a neuron receives signals at its dendrites and cell body and transmits them, as action potentials, along the axon in one direction: away from the cell body. The Law of Dynamic Polarization has important exceptions; dendrites can serve as synaptic output sites of neurons and axons can receive synaptic inputs.

Top Illustration: “Blausen 0657 MultipolarNeuron” by BruceBlaus – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons