An action potential is the local membrane potential created as a nerve impulse is transmitted. They set the pace of thought and action, constrain the sizes of evolving anatomies and enable centralized control and coordination of organss and tissuess.
When a biological cell or patch of membrane undergoes an action potential—or electrical excitation—the polarity of the transmembrane voltage swings rapidly from negative to positive and back. Within any one excitable cell, consecutive action potentials typically are indistinguishable. Also between different cells the amplitudes of the voltage swings tend to be roughly the same. But the speed and simplicity of action potentials vary significantly between cells, in particular between different cell types.
Minimally, an action potential involves a depolarization, a repolarization and finally a hyperpolarization (or "undershoot"). In specialized muscle cells of the heart, such as the pacemaker cells, a plateau phase of intermediate voltage may precede repolarization.
Changes in membrane permeability and the onset and cessation of ionic currents reflect the opening and closing of voltage-gated ion channels, which provide portals through the membrane for ions. Residing in and spanning the membrane, these enzymes sense and respond to changes in transmembrane potential.
The propagation speed of these impulses is faster in fatter fibers than in thin ones, other things being equal. In their Nobel prize-winning work uncovering the wave nature and ionic mechanism of action potentials, Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley performed experiments on the giant fiber of Atlantic squid. Responsible for initiating flight, this axon is fat enough to be seen without a microscope (100 to 1000 times larger than is typical). This is assumed to reflect an adaptation for speed. Indeed, the velocity of nerve impulses in these fibers is among the fastest in nature.
Because the salty cytoplasm of the axon is electrically conductive, and because the myelin inhibits charge leakage through the membrane, depolarization at one node is sufficient to elevate the voltage at a neighboring node to the threshold for action potential initiation. Thus in myelinated axons, action potentials do not propagate as waves, but recur at successive nodes and in effect hop along the axon. This mode of propagation is known as saltatory conduction.
The disease multiple sclerosis (MS) is due to a breakdown of myelin sheathing, and degrades muscle control by destroying axons' ability to conduct action potentials.
Action potentials (APs) are measured with the recording techniques of electrophysiology. In the case of an archetypal nerve action potential on an oscilloscope, the relatively large swing to a more positive value, followed by the repolarization recovery and undershoot together trace an arc that could be described as a distorted sine wave—or like the blips on hospital EKG machines that can be seen on TV (these EKG waves are a smear of all the action potentials in one heartbeat, so they enact more slowly than any individual AP and have a somewhat more complicated shape). In an unmyelinated axon that is firing an action potential, the transmembrane potential at any instant will vary from point to point along the fiber, with its amplitude depending on whether the AP wave has reached that point or passed it, and how long ago. A recording from a single point will show the various stages of the action potential enacted—depolarization, repolarization, hyperpolarization—as the wave passes.
In pacemaker and other cardiac muscle cells, inward calcium currents determine shape and duration of the plateau phase, which in turn controls the strength and duration of contraction. See ventricular action potential, atrial action potential, and pacemaker action potential for more details.