Saturday, September 22, 2007

Understanding neurons - a Eureka moment

Finally, a Eureka moment in my pursuit of how the neuron works. Much of what I’ve been studying, through lectures and reading, is actually pretty straightforward, and pretty much anyone who has time to sit in class and read textbooks could get the gist of it. But I’ve always been stumped by the electrical part. Electricity is what kicked my butt out of physics back in my freshman year, and it’s been befuddling me this fall. I could always see the logic in the equations that represent current and voltage. But it’s so hard to visualize what’s actually happening. Neurons function by creating an “electrical potential.” And tonight I finally can see how and why that happens. I’ve re-read the textbook chapter several times, and I’ve even taken to reading other textbooks on the topic, to see if they explain more clearly, and one of them did, by going into greater depth (instead of trying to simplify and gloss over the details).

Basically, the complexity of neurons (and all biology, really) comes from a series of chemical reactions that happen in chain-reaction form, cascading one after another. For example, you end up with: the 12 steps to transform molecule-A into molecule B; or the seven steps in moving K ions and N ions. I’m not attempting to memorize all of these, or any of them really. But it is exciting and rewarding to understand what’s involved. It’s sort of like learning how a car’s engine works: If you don’t work on it regularly, you won’t remember the details, or even all of the vocabulary, but you’ll retain a general sense of how it works, and an appreciation of what’s most critical and what can go wrong. And if something does go wrong or needs to be changed, you have a context to at least discuss it. That’s how I’m starting to feel now about neurons and synapses.

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