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Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. Neuroscience. 2nd edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001.

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Neuroscience. 2nd edition.

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Electrical Synapses

Although they are a distinct minority, electrical synapses are found in all nervous systems, including the human brain. The structure of an electrical synapse is shown schematically in Figure 5.1A. The membranes of the two communicating neurons come extremely close at the synapse and are actually linked together by an intercellular specialization called a gap junction. Gap junctions contain precisely aligned, paired channels in the membrane of the pre- and postsynaptic neurons, such that each channel pair forms a pore (Figure 5.2A). The pore of a gap junction channel is much larger than the pores of the voltage-gated ion channels described in the previous chapter. As a result, a variety of substances can simply diffuse between the cytoplasm of the pre- and postsynaptic neurons. In addition to ions, substances that diffuse through gap junction pores include molecules with molecular weights as great as several hundred daltons. This permits ATP and other important intracellular metabolites, such as second messengers (see Chapter 8), to be transferred between neurons.

Figure 5.1. Electrical and chemical synapses differ fundamentally in their transmission mechanisms.

Figure 5.1

Electrical and chemical synapses differ fundamentally in their transmission mechanisms. (A) At electrical synapses, gap junctions between pre- and postsynaptic membranes permit current to flow passively through intercellular channels (see blowup). This (more...)

Figure 5.2. Structure and function of gap junctions at electrical synapses.

Figure 5.2

Structure and function of gap junctions at electrical synapses. (A) Gap junctions consist of hexameric complexes formed by the coming together of subunits called connexons, which are present in both the pre- and postsynaptic membranes. The pores of the (more...)

Electrical synapses thus work by allowing ionic current to flow passively through the gap junction pores from one neuron to another. The usual source of this current is the potential difference generated locally by the action potential (see Chapter 3). The “upstream” neuron, which is the source of current, is called the presynaptic element, and the “downstream” neuron into which this current flows is termed postsynaptic. This arrangement has a number of interesting consequences. One is that transmission can be bidirectional; that is, current can flow in either direction across the gap junction, depending on which member of the coupled pair is invaded by an action potential (although some types of gap junctions have special features that render their transmission unidirectional). Another important feature of the electrical synapse is that transmission is extraordinarily fast: Because passive current flow across the gap junction is virtually instantaneous, communication can occur without the delay that is characteristic of chemical synapses.

These features are apparent in the operation of the first electrical synapse to be discovered in the crayfish nervous system. A postsynaptic electrical signal is observed at this synapse within a fraction of a millisecond after the generation of a presynaptic action potential (Figure 5.2B). In fact, at least part of this brief synaptic delay is caused by propagation of the action potential into the presynaptic terminal, so that there may be essentially no delay at all in the transmission of electrical signals across the synapse. Such synapses interconnect many of the neurons that allow the crayfish to escape from its predators, thus minimizing the time between the presence of a threatening stimulus and a potentially life-saving motor response.

A more general purpose of electrical synapses is to synchronize electrical activity among populations of neurons. For example, certain hormone-secreting neurons within the mammalian hypothalamus are connected by electrical synapses. This arrangement ensures that all cells fire action potentials at about the same time, thus facilitating a burst of hormone secretion into the circulation. The fact that gap junction pores are large enough to allow molecules such as ATP and second messengers to diffuse intercellularly also permits electrical synapses to coordinate the intracellular signaling and metabolism of coupled neurons.

By agreement with the publisher, this book is accessible by the search feature, but cannot be browsed.

Copyright © 2001, Sinauer Associates, Inc.
Bookshelf ID: NBK11164

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