Updated: Aug 31
Our brains use a sophisticated communication and command-and-control system that monitors and manages interactions between roughly 100 billion neurons, each with 5,000-10,000 synaptic connections, for as many as 500 trillion synapses in adults. Neurons and associated glial cells like astrocytes monitor the nervous system, process information, and orchestrate adaptive responses in the service of homeostasis (Breedlove & Watson, 2023).
This post provides an executive summary of neuron structure and function, which is ideal for neurofeedback technicians and undergraduates. We will cover Neuron Functions, Neuron Structure, and Three Neuron Designs. For readers interested in the "fine print," we have added Appendices on Cell Body Organelles and Rough ER Proteins.
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We can divide neurons into sensory neurons, motor neurons, and interneurons. Sensory neurons are specialized for sensory intake from internal and external environments. They are called afferent because they transmit sensory information towards the central nervous system (brain, retina, and spinal cord). The graphic below is courtesy of leavingcertbiology.net.
Motor neurons convey commands to glands, muscles, and other neurons. They are called efferent because they convey information towards the periphery. Motor neuron graphic © Designua/Shutterstock.com.
Interneurons provide the integration required for decisions, learning and memory, perception, planning, and movement. They are predominantly multipolar, have short processes, analyze incoming information, and distribute their analysis with other neurons in their network. Interneurons are entirely confined to the central nervous system, account for many of its neurons, and comprise most of the brain (Breedlove & Watson, 2023). Hippocampal interneuron graphic courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.
Local interneurons analyze small amounts of information provided by neighboring neurons. Relay interneurons connect networks of local interneurons from separate regions to enable diverse functions like perception, learning, and memory, and executive functions like planning (Carlson & Birkett, 2021).
Although neurons have over 200 different designs to perform specialized jobs in the nervous system, they generally have five structures: a cell body or soma, dendrites, an axon and axon hillock, and terminal buttons.
The cell body or soma contains the machinery for the neuron’s life processes. It comprises part of a neuron's input zone, receiving and integrating EPSPs and IPSPs, small graded positive and negative changes in membrane potential generated by axons and dendrites. Cell body graphic © Andrii Muzyka/Shutterstock.com.
The cell body of a typical neuron is 20 μm in diameter, and its spherical nucleus, which contains chromosomes comprised of DNA, is 5-10 μm across. Since this requires ribosomes, the cell body is the only location where neurons manufacture proteins (like enzymes, receptors, and ion channels) and peptides (neurotransmitters NT like oxytocin). Check out the Khan Academy YouTube video, Anatomy of a Neuron.
Dendrites are branched structures that extend from the neuron's cell body. They are the primary component of a neuron's input zone. Their extensive surface area maximizes the number of synapses and information a neuron can receive. Dendrites receive messages from other neurons via axodendritic synapses (junctions between axons and dendrites) and send messages to other neurons through dendrodendritic synapses (junctions between the dendrites of two neurons).
Dendrites receive thousands of synaptic contacts and have specialized proteins called receptors for neurotransmitters (NTs) released into the synaptic cleft (Bear, Connors, & Paradiso, 2020). Once dendrites receive a signal, they convert it into an electrical impulse transmitted to the cell body.
The graphic below depicts dendrites with raised areas called dendritic spines. Dendrites construct and disassemble spines as part of neuroplasticity. Spines allow dendrites to pack more receptors into a limited space.
The brain may use spiny synapses to provide stability and silent synapses on filopodia for flexibility. Filopodia are thin, elongated, and highly dynamic protrusions extending from developing neurons' growth cones or cell bodies. Stimulation in adulthood may cause them to express glutamate (AMPA) receptors and remodel their membranes to resemble spines (Vardalaki et al., 2022).
Holly Barker (2022) writing for The Scientist, explained:
The ability of the brain to use different synapses 'solves the plasticity versus flexibility dilemma,' says Harnett. If all the brain’s synapses are flexible, then you can’t preserve old information. But if they’re all stable, then it is difficult to learn new things, he says. Instead, the brain employs both: spiny synapses for stability and filopodia for flexibility.
But instead of distinct categories, Harnett’s group are beginning to think about dendritic projections as existing on a continuum, from filopodia on one end to mature spines at the other. 'It is a spectrum of maturity, strength, and plasticity,' says study author Dimitra Vardalaki, a PhD candidate in Harnett’s lab.
Filopodia photomicrograph © 2022 Gloria Mancinelli, Cells in Motion Interfaculty Centre.
Graded positive and negative changes in a neuron's apical dendrite produce the electroencephalogram (EEG). The scalp EEG is the voltage difference between two recording sites recorded over time. The EEG is primarily generated by large pyramidal neurons in layers 3 and 5 of the 2-4.5-mm-thick cortical gray matter. The movie below is a BioTrace+/NeXus-32 display of the raw EEG with voltage shown as μV peak to peak © John S. Anderson.
The image of a pyramidal neuron was created using Golgi silver chrome © Jose Luis Calvo/Shutterstock.com. Note that the apical dendrite arising from the top of the cell body and basilar dendrites feature an extensive network of spines.
An axon is a cylindrical structure only found in neurons specialized for the distribution of information within the central and peripheral nervous systems. Axons range from 1 to 25 µm in diameter and 0.1 mm to more than a meter in length. Some human neurons lack an axon entirely (Purves, 2018).
Over 90% of neurons are interneurons whose axons and dendrites are very short and do not extend beyond their cell cluster. Axons usually branch repeatedly. Each branch is called an axon collateral. Axon graphic © Designua/ Shutterstock.com.
An axon hillock is a cell body swelling where the axon begins. Neurons integrate EPSPs and IPSPs at the axon hillock and initiate all-or-none action potentials when its membrane becomes ~ 15 mV less negative than at rest. Graphic by M.alijar3i from the Wikipedia article Axon Hillock.
The axon branches out at its end to form axon terminals. Axon terminals contain vesicles that store NTs for release when an action potential arrives. Their presynaptic membrane may have reuptake transporters that return NTs from the synapse or extracellular space for repackaging. They make synaptic contacts with other neurons or effector cells. When an action potential reaches the axon terminals, it triggers the release of NTs stored in synaptic vesicles. The NTs cross the synaptic cleft and bind to receptors on the post-synaptic cell, transmitting the signal.
Three Neuron Designs
Despite differences in their structure, all neurons are characterized by input, integration, conduction, and output zones. Neurons can be categorized into three principal types: multipolar, bipolar, and unipolar.
Multipolar neurons possess multiple dendrites and a solitary axon. Examples of multipolar neurons include motor neurons and interneurons.
Bipolar neurons have one dendrite and one axon. They are typically involved in sensory systems like sight, smell, or hearing. For instance, bipolar cells in the retina receive input from photoreceptor cells and transmit this information to the ganglion cells, which then carry the visual signal to the brain.
Unipolar neurons display a unique formation where a single extension emerges from the cell body and bifurcates into two directions. In unipolar neurons, the integration zone is uniquely situated at the base of the dendritic branches, not within the cell body as is typically seen. Unipolar neurons are typically found in the peripheral nervous system, transmitting touch and pain signals from the body to the central nervous system.
Appendix A: Cell Body Organelles
The cell body contains the nucleus, endoplasmic reticulum (rough and smooth), Golgi apparatus, mitochondria, lysosomes, peroxisomes, neurofilaments, and microtubules. Graphic by BruceBlaus.
The nucleus is a neuron's control center. It contains the neuron's genetic material (DNA), which dictates the cell's function and structure. The nucleus regulates gene expression and controls protein synthesis.
The endoplasmic reticulum is a network of tubules, including the rough and smooth ER. The rough ER is studded with ribosomes, which are the sites of protein synthesis. Nissl bodies are rough ER with rosettes of free ribosomes and are the sites of protein synthesis. ER graphic © TimeLineArtist/Shutterstock.com.
The rough ER's protein synthesis function is critical for various processes within neurons, from intracellular signaling and structural maintenance to inter-neuronal communication. The smooth ER synthesizes lipids, detoxifies molecules, and traffics proteins. The smooth ER synthesizes phospholipids and cholesterol, essential cellular and organelle membrane components. Smooth ER enzymes detoxify endogenous and exogenous substances, such as drugs and toxins, by making them more soluble and easier to excrete from the body.
The Golgi apparatus is responsible for packaging proteins and lipids into vesicles for transport to their respective destinations within the cell or for export out of the cell. The Golgi apparatus is also crucial in forming synaptic vesicles containing neurotransmitters in neurons. Golgi apparatus graphic © Gunita Reine/Dreamstime.com.
Known as the cell's "powerhouses," mitochondria produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP) through cellular respiration. Most of a neuron's ATP is used to power its sodium-potassium transporters to restore resting membrane potentials. The mitochondrion graphic © Shadow_cluster/ Dreamstime.com.
Lysosomes are the cell's waste disposal system. They break down waste materials and cellular debris into simple compounds, which are transferred back into the cytoplasm as new cell-building materials. In lysosomal storage diseases like Tay-Sachs, lysosomes cannot break down and eliminate wastes. Lysosome graphic © Designua/Shutterstock.com.
Peroxisomes are involved in lipid metabolism and the breakdown of reactive oxygen species, thereby protecting the cell from oxidative damage. Peroxisome graphic © snapgalleria/iStock by Getty Images.
Neurofilaments provide structural support and shape to the neuron. Chemical synapse graphic © rob9000/Shutterstock.com.
Microtubules are involved in transport within the neuron. Motor proteins "walk" bidirectionally along the axon's length, carrying transport vesicles filled with crucial molecules.
This transport system is essential in neurons due to their elongated shape. The microtubule graphic © Kateryna Kon/Dreamstime.com.
Appendix B: Rough ER Proteins
The rough ER synthesizes membrane, secreted, vesicular, organelle, cytoskeletal, enzyme, and chaperone proteins. Membrane proteins are embedded in the cell membrane and play a variety of roles, including serving as ion channels, transporters, and receptors. Secreted proteins are synthesized, processed, and then packaged into vesicles as neurotransmitters (NTs) for transport out of the cell. Vesicular proteins are integral parts of the vesicles that store and release neurotransmitters. These proteins are involved in the trafficking, docking, and fusion of vesicles with the cell membrane and neurotransmitter uptake into the vesicles. Organelle proteins contribute to the structure and function of various organelles within the neuron. For instance, proteins synthesized by the rough ER may become integral parts of the Golgi apparatus, mitochondria, or lysosomes, each having specific functions. Cytoskeletal proteins are essential components of the neuron's cytoskeleton, which maintains the cell's shape, anchors organelles, and is involved in intracellular transport and cell division. The rough ER also synthesizes various enzymes involved in multiple biochemical pathways within the neuron. For example, some enzymes ensure that proteins are correctly folded and functional.
Chaperone proteins help to fold and assemble newly synthesized polypeptides and proteins in the ER lumen. They also play a crucial role in breaking down misfolded proteins.
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action potentials: brief, rapid, and large changes in membrane potential during which the potential reverses.
afferent: neurons or pathways that carry information from sensory receptors to the central nervous system.
axodendritic synapses: synapses between one neuron's axon and another's dendrite. axon collateral: a branch off the main axon of a neuron. Collaterals can propagate action potentials and help transmit signals to multiple targets, enhancing communication within the neural network.
axon hillock: a specialized region of the cell body (or soma) of a neuron that connects to the axon; it is the last site in the soma where membrane potentials propagated from synaptic inputs are summated before being transmitted to the axon.
axon terminal: the end of an axon or axon collateral, which forms a synapse with a neuron or an effector cell.
bipolar neurons: neurons that have one axon and one dendrite.
cell body: the part of a neuron containing the nucleus, most of the cytoplasm, and the organelles.
chaperone proteins: proteins that assist in the folding of other proteins. central nervous system: the brain, retina, and spinal cord. conduction zone: the region (axon) where information can be transmitted over long distances.
cytoskeletal proteins: proteins that contribute to a cell's shape, support, and movement capabilities.
dendrite: A branch-like projection of neurons that carries information toward the cell body.
dendritic spines: small protrusions from a dendrite that typically receive input from a single synapse of an axon.
dendrodendritic synapses: synapses between dendrites of different neurons.
efferent: neurons or pathways that carry information away from the central nervous system towards the periphery.
electroencephalogram (EEG): a noninvasive test used to record electrical patterns in the brain.
endoplasmic reticulum (ER): a network of tubular membranes in the cell that works in the synthesis and transport of proteins (rough ER) and lipids (smooth ER). enzyme: a type of protein that acts as a catalyst in biological systems to accelerate specific chemical reactions without being consumed. Enzymes are essential in metabolism, DNA replication, protein synthesis, and signal transduction. filopodia: thin, elongated, and highly dynamic protrusions extending from the growth cone or the cell body of developing neurons. They serve a crucial function during neural development as they explore the surrounding environment, guide neuronal growth and pathfinding, and initiate the formation of synapses. Filopodia can form dendritic spines, the primary sites for excitatory synapses in the brain. Golgi apparatus is an organelle that modifies, sorts, and packages proteins and lipids to transport to targeted destinations. input zone: the region comprised of dendrites and the cell body where neurons collect information from other cells. integration zone: the site where a neuron "decides" to initiate an action potential. This is the axon hillock for multipolar and bipolar neurons.
interneurons: CNS neurons that process information locally and relay information between other neurons.
local interneurons: interneurons that form short axon connections within the same region to analyze small pieces of information.
lysosomes: organelles that contain digestive enzymes to break down waste materials and cellular debris.
membrane proteins: proteins embedded within, or associated with the cell membrane, serving various functions such as transport, signal transduction, and cell recognition.
microtubules: tiny, hollow cylinders made up of protein that provides structural support and are involved in cell division and transportation of substances within the cell.
mitochondria: organelles that are the sites of aerobic respiration within the cell and are responsible for producing most of the cell's supply of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), used as a source of chemical energy.
motor neurons: neurons that carry information from the central nervous system to muscles and glands to trigger action.
multipolar neurons: neurons that have one axon and two or more dendrites.
neurofilaments: intermediate filament proteins that provide structural support for neurons and their synapses.
neurotransmitter (NT): chemical messengers that neurons use to communicate.
nucleus: the central and most important part of a cell, containing genetic material.
organelle proteins: proteins that contribute to the structure and function of cell organelles. output zone: the region where a neuron transfers information to other cells (e.g., axon terminal). peripheral nervous system (PNS): the nervous system outside the brain and spinal cord. It consists of all the nerves that carry signals between the central nervous system (CNS) and the rest of the body. It's divided into the sensory (afferent) division, which transmits signals from the body to the CNS, and the motor (efferent) division, which sends signals from the CNS to muscles, glands, and other tissues.
peroxisomes: small organelles that contain enzymes involved in oxidation reactions.
pyramidal neuron: a type of neuron in the cerebral cortex and hippocampus, named for its pyramid-like cell body.
relay interneurons: interneurons that form long axon connections that allow communication between neurons in different brain regions.
rough endoplasmic reticulum (rough ER): a part of the endoplasmic reticulum studded with ribosomes and involved in protein synthesis. rough endoplasmic reticulum enzymes: enzymes located in the rough ER that assist in protein synthesis and modification.
secreted proteins: proteins released from a cell into the extracellular space, often to send signals to other cells.
sensory neurons: neurons that carry information from sensory receptors to the central nervous system.
silent synapses: synapses on filopodia missing glutamate (AMPA) receptors, which contribute flexibility.
smooth endoplasmic reticulum (smooth ER): a part of the endoplasmic reticulum that lacks ribosomes and is involved in lipid synthesis and detoxification.
spiny synapses: synapses on dendritic spines, which contribute stability.
synaptic vesicles: small sacs in the axon terminal that store NTs.
Tay-Sachs disease: a rare, inherited neurodegenerative disorder characterized by a deficiency of an enzyme called beta-hexosaminidase A. This deficiency results in the accumulation of GM2 gangliosides, a type of lipid, in neurons, leading to progressive damage and death of these cells.
unipolar neurons: neurons with one process extending from the cell body that branches into two, acting as the dendrite and axon.
vesicular proteins: proteins that are components of, or associated with, the vesicles that transport various molecules within or outside the cell.
Barker, H. (2022). Silent synapses may provide plasticity in adulthood. The Scientist.com. Bear, M. F., Connors, B. W., & Paradiso, M. A. (2020). Neuroscience: Exploring the brain (4th ed.). Jones & Bartlett Learning. Breedlove, S. M., & Watson, N. V. (2023). Behavioral neuroscience (10th ed.). Sinauer Associates, Inc. Carlson, N. R., & Birkett, M. A. (2021). Physiology of behavior (13th ed.). Pearson.
Purves, D. (2018). Neuroscience (6th ed.). Oxford University Press.
Vardalaki, D., Chung, K., & Harnett, M. T. (2022). Filopodia are a structural substrate for silent synapses in adult neocortex. Nature, 612(7939), 323–327. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-022-05483-6