In the previous chapters, we studied the spread of the membrane potential in passive or active neuronal structures and the interaction among two or more synaptic inputs. We have yet to give a full account of ionic channels, the elementary units underlying all of this dizzying variety of electrical signaling both within and between neurons. Ionic channels are individual proteins anchored within the bilipid membrane of neurons, glia, or other cells, and can be thought of as water-filled macromolecular pores that are permeable to particular ions. They can be exquisitely voltage sensitive, as the fast sodium channel responsible for the sodium spike in the squid giant axon, or they can be relatively independent of voltage but dependent on the binding of some neurotransmitter, as is the case for most synaptic receptors, such as the acetylcholine receptor at the vertebrate neuromuscular junction or the AMPA and GABA synaptic receptors mediating excitation and inhibition in the central nervous system. Ionic channels are ubiquitous and provide the substratum for all biophysical phenomena underlying information processing, including mediating synaptic transmission, determining the membrane voltage, supporting action potential initiation and propagation, and, ultimately, linking changes in the membrane potential to effective output, such as the secretion of a neurotransmitter or hormone or the contraction of a muscle fiber. Individual ionic channels are amazingly specific. A typical potassium channel can distinguish a K+ ion with a 1.33 Å radius from a Na+ ion of 0.95 Å radius, selecting the former over the latter by a factor of 10,000. This single protein can do this selection at a rate of up to 100 million ions each second (Doyle et al, 1998). At the time of Hodgkin and Huxley’s seminal study in the early 1950s, two broad classes of transport mechanisms were competing as plausible ways for carrying ionic fluxes across the membrane: carrier molecules and pores. At the time, no direct evidence for either one existed. It was not until the early 1970s that the fast ACh synaptic receptor and the Na channel were chemically isolated and purified and identified as proteins.
Oxford Scholarship Online requires a subscription or purchase to access the full text of books within the service. Public users can however freely search the site and view the abstracts and keywords for each book and chapter.
If you think you should have access to this title, please contact your librarian.