Electrical potentials exist across the membranes of virtually all cells of the body. In addition, some cells, such as nerve and muscle cells, are capable of generating rapidly changing electrochemical impulses at their membranes, and these impulses are used to transmit signals along the nerve or muscle membranes. In still other types of cells, such as glandular cells, macrophages, and ciliated cells, local changes in membrane potentials also activate many of the cells' functions. The present discussion is concerned with membrane potentials generated both at rest and during action by nerve and muscle cells.
Basic Physics of Membrane Potentials
"Diffusion Potential" Caused by an Ion Concentration Difference on the Two Sides of the Membrane. In Figure 5-1A, the potassium concentration is great inside a nerve fiber membrane but very low outside the membrane. Let us assume that the membrane in this instance is permeable to the potassium ions but not to any other ions. Because of the large potassium concentration gradient from inside toward outside, there is a strong tendency for extra numbers of potassium ions to diffuse outward through the membrane. As they do so, they carry positive electrical charges to the outside, thus creating electropositivity outside the membrane and electronegativity inside because of negative anions that remain behind and do not diffuse outward with the potassium. Within a millisecond or so, the potential difference between the inside and outside, called the diffusion potential, becomes great enough to block further net potassium diffusion to the exterior, despite the high potassium ion concentration gradient. In the normal mammalian nerve fiber, the potential difference required is about 94 millivolts, with negativity inside the fiber membrane.
Figure 5-1B shows the same phenomenon as in Figure 5-1A, but this time with high concentration of sodium ions outside the membrane and low sodium inside. These ions are also positively charged. This time, the membrane is highly permeable to the sodium ions but impermeable to all other ions. Diffusion of the positively charged sodium ions to the inside creates a membrane potential of opposite polarity to that in Figure 5-1 A, with negativity outside and positiv-ity inside. Again, the membrane potential rises high enough within milliseconds to block further net diffusion of sodium ions to the inside; however, this time, in the mammalian nerve fiber, the potential is about 61 millivolts positive inside the fiber.
Thus, in both parts of Figure 5-1, we see that a concentration difference of ions across a selectively permeable membrane can, under appropriate conditions, create a membrane potential. In later sections of this chapter, we show that many of the rapid changes in membrane potentials observed during nerve and muscle impulse transmission result from the occurrence of such rapidly changing diffusion potentials.
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