Repetitive self-induced discharges occur normally in the heart, in most smooth muscle, and in many of the neurons of the central nervous system. These rhythmical discharges cause (1) the rhythmical beat of the heart, (2) rhythmical peristalsis of the intestines, and (3) such neuronal events as the rhythmical control of breathing.
Also, almost all other excitable tissues can discharge repetitively if the threshold for stimulation of the tissue cells is reduced low enough. For instance, even large nerve fibers and skeletal muscle fibers, which normally are highly stable, discharge repetitively when they are placed in a solution that contains the drug veratrine or when the calcium ion concentration falls below a critical value, both of which increase sodium permeability of the membrane.
Re-excitation Process Necessary for Spontaneous Rhythmicity.
For spontaneous rhythmicity to occur, the membrane even in its natural state must be permeable enough to sodium ions (or to calcium and sodium ions through the slow calcium-sodium channels) to allow automatic membrane depolarization. Thus, Figure 5-14 shows that the "resting" membrane potential in the rhythmical control center of the heart is only -60 to -70 millivolts. This is not enough negative voltage to keep the sodium and calcium channels totally closed. Therefore, the following sequence occurs: (1) some sodium and calcium ions flow inward; (2) this increases the membrane voltage in the positive direction, which further increases membrane permeability; (3) still more ions flow inward; and (4) the permeability increases more, and so on, until an action potential is generated. Then, at the end of the action potential, the membrane re-polarizes. After another delay of milliseconds or seconds, spontaneous excitability causes depolarization again, and a new action potential occurs spontaneously. This cycle continues over and over and causes self-induced rhythmical excitation of the excitable tissue.
Why does the membrane of the heart control center not depolarize immediately after it has become re-polarized, rather than delaying for nearly a second before the onset of the next action potential? The answer can be found by observing the curve labeled "potassium conductance" in Figure 5-14. This shows that toward the end of each action potential, and continuing for a short period thereafter, the membrane becomes excessively permeable to potassium ions. The excessive outflow of potassium ions carries tremendous numbers of positive charges to the outside of the
Cross section of a small nerve trunk containing both myelinated and unmyelinated fibers.
membrane, leaving inside the fiber considerably more negativity than would otherwise occur. This continues for nearly a second after the preceding action potential is over, thus drawing the membrane potential nearer to the potassium Nernst potential. This is a state called hyperpolarization, also shown in Figure 5-14. As long as this state exists, self-re-excitation will not occur. But the excess potassium conductance (and the state of hyperpolarization) gradually disappears, as shown after each action potential is completed in the figure, thereby allowing the membrane potential again to increase up to the threshold for excitation. Then, suddenly, a new action potential results, and the process occurs again and again.
Special Characteristics of Signal Transmission in Nerve Trunks
Myelinated and Unmyelinated Nerve Fibers. Figure 5-15 shows a cross section of a typical small nerve, revealing many large nerve fibers that constitute most of the cross-sectional area. However, a more careful look reveals many more very small fibers lying between the large ones. The large fibers are myelinated, and the small ones are unmyelinated. The average nerve trunk contains about twice as many unmyelinated fibers as myelinated fibers.
Figure 5-16 shows a typical myelinated fiber. The central core of the fiber is the axon, and the membrane of the axon is the membrane that actually conducts the action potential. The axon is filled in its center with axo-plasm, which is a viscid intracellular fluid. Surrounding the axon is a myelin sheath that is often much thicker than the axon itself. About once every 1 to 3 millimeters along the length of the myelin sheath is a node of Ranvier.
Function of the Schwann cell to insulate nerve fibers. A, Wrapping of a Schwann cell membrane around a large axon to form the myelin sheath of the myelinated nerve fiber. B, Partial wrapping of the membrane and cytoplasm of a Schwann cell around multiple unmyelinated nerve fibers (shown in cross section). (A, Modified from Leeson TS, Leeson R: Histology. Philadelphia: WB Saunders, 1979.)
The myelin sheath is deposited around the axon by Schwann cells in the following manner: The membrane of a Schwann cell first envelops the axon. Then the Schwann cell rotates around the axon many times, laying down multiple layers of Schwann cell membrane containing the lipid substance sphingomyelin. This substance is an excellent electrical insulator that decreases ion flow through the membrane about 5000-fold. At the juncture between each two successive Schwann cells along the axon, a small uninsulated area only 2 to 3 micrometers in length remains where ions still can flow with ease through the axon membrane between the extracellular fluid and the intracellular fluid inside the axon. This area is called the node of Ranvier.
"Saltatory" Conduction in Myelinated Fibers from Node to Node.
Even though almost no ions can flow through the thick myelin sheaths of myelinated nerves, they can flow with ease through the nodes of Ranvier. Therefore, action potentials occur only at the nodes. Yet the action potentials are conducted from node to node, as shown in Figure 5-17; this is called saltatory conduction. That is, electrical current flows through the surrounding extracellular fluid outside the myelin sheath as well as through the axoplasm inside the axon from node to node, exciting successive nodes one after another. Thus,
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