Nerve impulses traveling along one neuron affect the activity of other neurons at points of interaction called synapses. These normally occur where the axon of one neuron terminates on the dendrite or cell body of another. Here a nerve impulse (action potential) reaching the end of its axon can trigger an impulse in another neuron. In this way, information can be relayed from neuron to neuron. However this is really too simple a picture of the interactions between neurons. Although they can relay information in this simple fashion, they often do far more. They combine, modify, transform, and process information in ways that we are only just beginning to understand and that are far more complex than the internal mechanism of the most advanced electronic computer. While much of this complexity need not be considered in a course on introductory psychology, some appreciation of it seems appropriate. In particular we should be aware of the variety of ways in which one neuron can affect another and the chemical nature of this interaction.
Another article shows how the axons of many neurons (sometimes hundreds) can form synapses with a single neuron. Each point where the knobby ending of an axon (synaptic knob) contacts the neuron is an individual synapse. Between each synaptic knob and the other neuron is a very narrow (about 2 billionths of a meter), fluid-filled gap called the synaptic cleft. The arrival of an action potential causes the synaptic knob to release chemicals into the synaptic cleft. Those chemicals that are taken up by the other neuron so as to directly increase (excitatory synapse) or decrease (inhibitory synapse) the occurrence of an action potential are called neurotransmitters.
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