Neuronal excitability: voltage-dependent currents and synaptic transmission

J Clin Neurophysiol. 1992 Apr;9(2):195-211.


Neuronal membrane excitability and the synaptic connections among neurons produce behavior and cognition. The intracellular compartment of neurons is negatively charged relative to the extracellular space, and this charge, as well as current flow, is produced by ions. From the perspective of charged ions, the lipid bilayer of the neuronal membrane acts as a capacitor, and transmembrane glycoprotein pores or channels act as resistors. The open and closed states of ionic channels determine the membrane potential. At equilibrium, the lowest resistance or greatest permeability is for potassium, and the resting membrane potential is close to the equilibrium potential for potassium. When a channel is opened, permeable ions diffuse down their electrochemical gradients and the membrane potential is changed. Channels are gated (opened or closed) by voltage, neurotransmitters, and second messengers. The neuron integrates synaptic potentials produced by transmitter-gated channel activity and either generates a subthreshold potential, or a suprathreshold depolarization that generates an action potential or a burst of action potentials. Action potential generation is mediated by a large, brief sodium influx that is followed by activation of a voltage-dependent potassium eflux. The pattern of action potential firing is dependent on the interaction of a repertoire of voltage-dependent ion conductances. The action potential is the main signaling mechanism to activate synaptic transmission at axon terminals. Synaptic transmission is graded depending on the amount of calcium entering the presynaptic terminal. The number of action potentials, or the shape of the action potential, will determine the amount of calcium entering the terminal and the efficacy of synaptic transmission. Presynaptic ion channels may also be controlled by neurotransmitters or modulators and affect synaptic transmission by altering the amount of calcium influx.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Axons / physiology
  • Central Nervous System / physiology
  • Dendrites / physiology
  • Humans
  • Ion Channels / physiology
  • Membrane Potentials / physiology
  • Neuromuscular Junction / physiology
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / physiology*
  • Synapses / physiology*
  • Synaptic Membranes / physiology
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology*


  • Ion Channels
  • Neurotransmitter Agents