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The Neuromuscular Junction and Muscle Excitation Help

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Aug 30, 2011

Introduction to The Neuromuscular Junction and Muscle Excitation

A critical element in the neuromuscular connection is the motor neuron. As its name suggests, a motor neuron is a nerve cell that excites a muscle to contract (or a gland to secrete), thereby causing movement. Thus, this type of neuron results in the moving of a vertebrate body, in somewhat the same sense that a motor ultimately causes the body of a car to move.

Figure 14.8 illustrates the main parts of a typical motor neuron. There are a number of dendrites ( DEN -dryts) at one end of the nerve cell. These dendrites are actually slender branches of cytoplasm that carry excitation toward the cell body (major central portion) of the neuron.

Study suggestion: Why do you think this word derives from the Greek for “of a tree”?

When the cell body is sufficiently excited, it fires off an action potential or nerve impulse. The action potential (nerve impulse) can most simply be considered a wave. It is a traveling wave of chemical excitation that passes from the neuron cell body, and then onto the neuron axon ( AX -ahn).

The axon is like a long slender “axle” holding two car wheels. Although the axon doesn’t move, it is a long, slender branch of cytoplasm that carries excitation (an action potential) away from the cell body of a neuron. The action potential or nerve impulse travels down the axon to its branching tips, called the axon terminals.

Within the axon terminals are tiny vesicles ( VES -ih-kls). Each vesicle is literally a “tiny bladder” that consists of a membrane surrounding thousands of neurotransmitter ( NUR -oh- trans -mit-er) molecules. Each time an action potential travels down into the axon terminals, the membranes surrounding some of the vesicles rupture.

The Neuromuscular (Nerve-Muscle) Connection The Neuromuscular Junction and Muscle Excitation

Fig. 14.8 The neuromuscular junction and muscle excitation.

Hundreds of neurotransmitter molecules are then released into the neuromuscular junction, which is also called the motor end plate. The neuromuscular junction (motor end plate) is the flat, plate-like area where the axon terminals of a motor neuron almost (but not quite) touch the cell membrane of a muscle fiber.

The Process Of Muscle Fiber Excitation

The released neurotransmitter molecules diffuse across the narrow, saltwater-filled gap of the neuromuscular junction, then attach to transmitter binding sites on the muscle fiber. What happens to the muscle fiber, then, is largely determined by the nature of the neurotransmitter molecules that are released and attached to the binding sites.

Excitatory neurotransmitter molecules stimulate or excite the skeletal muscle fiber to contract. The main excitatory neurotransmitter in the human neuromuscular junction is called acetylcholine (uh- see -tul- KOH -leen), abbreviated as ACh.

Motor Pathways

The neuromuscular junction (motor end plate) can be considered the functional end of a particular motor pathway . A motor pathway is a sequence of one or more motor neurons that carries an action potential to a neuromuscular junction, thereby resulting in muscle contraction.

From this definition, you can see that a lower motor neuron is the one whose axon and axon terminals actually makes a neuromuscular junction with one or more skeletal muscle fibers. “Where is the cell body of this lower motor neuron located?” the inquiring mind needs to know. Quite often, the cell body of the lower motor neuron is located in the gray matter of the spinal cord (Figure 14.9). The axon then extends outward into the white matter , entering a spinal nerve .

The spinal nerve travels some distance away from the spinal cord. The motor neuron axons within the spinal nerve carry the action potential away from the central region of the whole body, and hence to the “outer portion” or periphery ( per - IF -eh-ree). As it reaches the body periphery, the spinal nerve branches into one or more peripheral ( per - IF -er-al) nerves . It is the peripheral nerve, then, that forms the last major linkage in the motor pathway. From here, the axon terminals of the lower motor neuron branch out and make a neuromuscular junction with one or more skeletal muscle fibers. Excitatory neurotransmitter (such as acetylcholine, ACh) is released, the skeletal muscle fibers are stimulated, and the fibers contract.

The spinal nerves and individual peripheral nerves leading to various skeletal muscles are considered parts of the Peripheral Nervous System or PNS. This name is due to the fact that they supply the body periphery (outer portion).

The Neuromuscular (Nerve-Muscle) Connection Motor Pathways

Fig. 14.9 A lower motor neuron and its pathway.

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