In 2003, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Paul C. Lauterbur and Sir Peter Mansfield for discoveries related to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This is a tool to see the structures of the body (not just the nervous system) that depends on magnetic fields associated with certain atomic nuclei. The utility of this technique in the nervous system is that fat tissue and water appear as different shades between black and white. Because white matter is fatty (from myelin) and gray matter is not, they can be easily distinguished in MRI images. Visit the Nobel Prize website to play an interactive game that demonstrates the use of this technology and compares it with other types of imaging technologies. Also, the results from an MRI session are compared with images obtained from x-ray or computed tomography. How do the imaging techniques shown in this game indicate the separation of white and gray matter compared with the freshly dissected tissue shown earlier?
Visit this site to read about a woman that notices that her daughter is having trouble walking up the stairs. This leads to the discovery of a hereditary condition that affects the brain and spinal cord. The electromyography and MRI tests indicated deficiencies in the spinal cord and cerebellum, both of which are responsible for controlling coordinated movements. To what functional division of the nervous system would these structures belong?
The neurons are dynamic cells with the ability to make a vast number of connections and to respond incredibly quickly to stimuli and to initiate movements based on those stimuli. They are the focus of intense research as failures in physiology can lead to devastating illnesses. Why are neurons only found in animals? Why wouldn’t they be helpful for plants or microorganisms?
View the University of Michigan Webscope to see an electron micrograph of a cross-section of a myelinated nerve fiber. The axon contains microtubules and neurofilaments, bounded by a plasma membrane known as the axolemma. Outside the plasma membrane of the axon is the myelin sheath, which is composed of the tightly wrapped plasma membrane of a Schwann cell. What aspects of the cells in this image react with the stain that makes them the deep, dark, black color, such as the multiple layers that are the myelin sheath?
What happens across the membrane of an electrically active cell is a dynamic process that is hard to visualize with static images or through text descriptions. View this animation to really understand the process. What is the difference between the driving force for Na+ and K+? And what is similar about the movement of these two ions?
Visit this site to see a virtual neurophysiology lab, and to observe electrophysiological processes in the nervous system, where scientists directly measure the electrical signals produced by neurons. Often, the action potentials occur so rapidly that watching a screen to see them occur is not helpful. A speaker is powered by the signals recorded from a neuron and it “pops” each time the neuron fires an action potential. These action potentials are firing so fast that it sounds like static on the radio. Electrophysiologists can recognize the patterns within that static to understand what is happening. Why is the leech model used for measuring the electrical activity of neurons instead of using humans?
Watch this video to learn about summation. The process of converting electrical signals to chemical signals and back requires subtle changes that can result in transient increases or decreases in membrane voltage. To cause a lasting change in the target cell, multiple signals are usually added together, or summated. Does spatial summation have to happen all at once, or can the separate signals arrive on the postsynaptic neuron at slightly different times? Explain your answer.
Watch this video to learn about the release of a neurotransmitter. The action potential reaches the end of the axon, called the axon terminal, and a chemical signal is released to tell the target cell to do something, either initiate a new action potential, or to suppress that activity. In a very short space, the electrical signal of the action potential is changed into the chemical signal of a neurotransmitter, and then back to electrical changes in the target cell membrane. What is the importance of voltage-gated calcium channels in the release of neurotransmitters?