Nerve cells (neurons): Functions, structure, definition, types

In the vast and intricate landscape of the human body, few structures are as essential and complex as nerve cells, also known as neurons. These critical elements of our nervous system form an elaborate network, serving as the primary conduits for all of our body’s functions, feelings, and thoughts. 

From appreciating a sunset’s beauty to helping us solve a challenging mathematical problem, neurons are at the heart of every experience. 

In this blog post, we’ll explore the fascinating world of these cells, exploring their structure, functions, types, and even common disorders that afflict them. 

Furthermore, we’ll provide some practical guidance on how you can take care of your neurons to ensure their optimal functioning and health. 

Whether you’re a seasoned neuroscientist, a student eager to learn, or someone curious about the human body’s inner workings, we welcome you to join us on this journey of discovery into the microcosm of neurons.

What are neurons or nerve cells?

At its most fundamental level, a neuron, also commonly known as a nerve cell, is an electrically excitable cell that communicates with other cells via specialized connections called synapses. 

These cells are the nervous system’s primary components, including the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves. They are responsible for receiving sensory input from the external world, sending motor commands to our muscles, and transforming and relaying the electrical signals at the foundation of our thoughts, memories, and feelings [1].

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Neurons come in many shapes and sizes, but most have three essential parts: a cell body, or soma, that contains the nucleus of the cell; dendrites, short branching structures that receive signals from other neurons and convey them towards the cell body; and an axon, a long slender projection that transmits signals away from the cell body to other neurons or muscle cells.

In the human brain alone, it’s estimated that there are about 86 billion neurons, each potentially connected to thousands of others, forming an intricate network of communication that is the basis of all human intelligence and behavior.

parts of a neuron
Photograph: ktsimage/Envato

Parts of a neuron

The neuron is an incredibly specialized cell, equipped with unique structures that enable it to perform its vital role in the nervous system. A neuron is composed of several essential parts, each playing an indispensable role in transmitting and receiving information.

Cell body (soma)

The cell body, or soma, is the life center of the neuron. It houses the nucleus, which contains the cell’s genetic material, and the cytoplasm, where the cell’s metabolic reactions occur [2]. The cell body is responsible for the neuron’s overall health and functionality, maintaining the cell’s structure and carrying out protein synthesis.


These are short, branch-like structures that extend from the cell body [3]. They are akin to the “antennae” of the neuron, receiving signals from other neurons and transmitting them to the cell body. The signals they receive can either stimulate the neuron to initiate an electrical response (excitatory signals) or inhibit it from doing so (inhibitory signals).


The axon is a long, slender projection that extends from the cell body and ends in multiple branches. Unlike dendrites, which receive signals, the axon’s primary function is to transmit electrical signals away from the cell body to other neurons or cells [4]. The point where an axon connects with another cell is called a synapse.

Myelin sheath and Nodes of Ranvier

Many axons are insulated by a fatty layer known as the myelin sheath. The myelin sheath acts as an electrical insulator, increasing the speed at which electrical impulses (action potentials) travel along the axon. 

The myelin sheath is not continuous and has small gaps known as Nodes of Ranvier. These nodes play a crucial role in speeding up the transmission of electrical signals along the axon, allowing for rapid and efficient communication between neurons.

How do neurons work?

Neurons are the essential workhorses of the nervous system, playing a critical role in transmitting and processing information throughout the body [5]. They function as the body’s communication system, helping different parts interact. Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of how neurons transmit information:

1. Receives signals

The process begins with dendrites, the small branches extending from the cell body of the neuron. Dendrites receive signals from other neurons or sensory receptors responding to stimuli like light, sound, or touch. This information is then passed on to the cell body.

2. Triggers action potentials

If the signal received is strong enough to pass a certain threshold, it triggers an action potential. An action potential is an electrical charge that starts in the cell body and then travels down the axon [6].

It’s an all-or-nothing event, which means it will always travel the entire length of the axon, regardless of the strength of the signal, as long as the signal surpasses the necessary threshold.

3. Transmits signals

The action potential travels along the axon toward the axon terminals near other neurons or muscle cells. At the axon terminals, the electrical signal triggers the release of neurotransmitters, chemical compounds that carry the signal across the synaptic gap to the next cell.

4. Propagates signal

The neurotransmitters cross the synaptic gap and bind to receptors on the receiving cell (which could be another neuron or a muscle cell), either prompting or inhibiting a response in that cell.

5. Terminates signal

After the neurotransmitters have transmitted their signal, they are either reabsorbed by the sending neuron (a process known as reuptake), degraded by enzymes, or simply diffuse away. This termination ensures that neurons can quickly reset and transmit new signals.

How do neurons communicate with each other?

Neurons communicate with each other through a combination of electrical and chemical signals, with each playing a crucial role in transmitting information throughout the nervous system.

Electrical signals

The electrical aspect of neuronal communication involves what’s known as action potentials. An action potential is an electrical charge that propagates along the length of a neuron’s axon.

This electrical signal begins when a neuron receives sufficient excitatory input from other neurons or external stimuli. The neuron’s membrane potential (the voltage difference between the inside and outside of the cell) changes, opening voltage-gated ion channels.

These channels allow ions to flow across the cell membrane, creating an electrical current. This current propels the action potential down the axon, away from the cell body, towards the axon terminals.

Chemical synapses

At the end of the axon, the electrical signal (action potential) reaches a synapse structure. The synapse is the junction where a neuron communicates with another neuron or a target effector cell, like a muscle or gland cell.

Synaptic communication is predominantly chemical. When the action potential arrives at the synapse, it prompts the release of molecules called neurotransmitters from vesicles within the neuron’s axon terminal.

These neurotransmitters cross the synaptic gap and bind to specific receptors on the membrane of the receiving cell.

The binding of neurotransmitters to their receptors can cause various effects on the receiving cell. They trigger a new action potential, inhibit the creation of an action potential, or initiate other modulatory effects.

The remarkable interplay between electrical signals and chemical synapses is fundamental to the functioning of the nervous system. The continuous dance of these signals allows us to move, think, perceive, and interact with the world around us.

Different types of neurons

While all neurons share some core characteristics, not all are the same. There are several types of neurons, each with its unique structure and function within the nervous system. Here’s a closer look at some of the primary types:

Sensory neurons

Also called afferent neurons, sensory neurons are responsible for converting external stimuli from the environment into internal electrical impulses. 

For example, they can be activated by sensory input like light, sound, heat, or pressure. These neurons are often linked to sensory organs, like the eyes or the skin, and they carry information from these organs to the central nervous system [7].

Motor neurons

Known as efferent neurons, motor neurons carry signals away from the central nervous system and toward the muscles or glands in the body. These neurons stimulate muscle contraction or gland secretion, allowing us to move, speak, and respond to our environment.


Association or relay neurons, also known as interneurons, are located only within the central nervous system. They form the connections between sensory and motor neurons and with other interneurons. 

Interneurons process and interpret sensory information and determine the appropriate response. They comprise most neurons in the body and are integral to complex tasks like learning, decision-making, and cognition.

Bipolar neurons

These types of neurons are specialized sensory neurons for transmitting special senses. As the name suggests, they have two extensions – one axon and one dendrite. They are commonly found in the retina, the inner ear, and the olfactory area of the brain.

Pyramidal neurons

Pyramidal neurons are multipolar neurons with pyramid-shaped cell bodies. These neurons are found in various brain parts, including the cortex, the hippocampus, and other areas. They play critical roles in cognitive functions like learning and memory.

Purkinje neurons

Purkinje neurons are large, flask-shaped, multipolar neurons found in the cerebellum. They are integral to the body’s motor coordination.

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How different types of neurons work together in the nervous system

Neurons form the basic building blocks of the nervous system, which is divided into two main parts: the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). Each system relies on neurons to transmit information and perform their functions.

Comprising of the brain and the spinal cord, the CNS serves as the processing center for the nervous system, interpreting inputs from the body and coordinating appropriate responses. It comprises motor neurons, interneurons, and specialized neurons in different brain regions.

The PNS then, connects the CNS to the rest of the body. It comprises all the nerves and neurons outside the brain and spinal cord. 

Neurons transmit electrical and chemical signals, allowing communication between different body parts, enabling us to react to our environment, regulate bodily functions, perceive the world, and even think and create memories.

Here’s how sensory neurons, motor neurons, and interneurons work together to enable our bodies to function seamlessly:

Sensory neurons

The process often begins with sensory neurons. These neurons are designed to respond to specific stimuli such as light, sound, or touch. When they encounter these stimuli, they generate an electrical signal or action potential. 

This signal travels along the sensory neuron’s axon and is directed toward the central nervous system. Sensory neurons bring information about the world within and around us to the brain and spinal cord, where the information can be processed.

sensory neurons
Photograph: claudioventrella/Envato


Once sensory information reaches the CNS, it’s overtaken by interneurons. Interneurons are located entirely within the CNS and link sensory and motor neurons. They interpret the sensory information and determine an appropriate response. 

They are also involved in higher functions like learning and memory. A large part of the brain’s complexity comes from the extensive networks of interneurons, which can process and integrate diverse types of information.

Motor neurons

After the interneurons in the CNS process the information and decide on a response, they stimulate motor neurons. Motor neurons carry signals from the CNS to effectors like muscles or glands. 

If the reaction involves a physical action, such as moving your hand away from a hot surface, motor neurons will transmit signals to the muscles involved, causing them to contract.

This is a simplified overview of how different types of neurons work together in the nervous system. The seamless interaction between these neurons allows us to navigate and interact with our environment, perform tasks, and maintain homeostasis.

What is the role of neurons in memory and learning?

Neurons play a fundamental role in memory and learning due to their unique ability for neuroplasticity – forming new connections in response to new experiences or stimuli.

Neurons and learning

When we learn, specific neurons activate and create new connections with others, strengthening synapses for more effortless information transfer. This process, known as synaptic plasticity, is vital for learning [8]. 

Repeated learning or practice further fortifies these connections, increasing the efficiency of synapse transmissions, a phenomenon referred to as long-term potentiation (LTP).

Neurons and memory

Memory creation and recall depend heavily on neuronal activity and connectivity. Certain neurons activate in a specific pattern as memory forms, creating a unique neural pathway. 

The neurons reactivate in the same order when that memory is recalled, following the unique path. More frequently recalled memories have more robust pathways, making them easier to access.

Interestingly, research suggests memory consolidation occurs during sleep when the day’s neuronal connections are reinforced.

The adaptability of neurons enables these complex memory formation, storage, and retrieval processes. Ensuring neuron health through a brain-healthy lifestyle can help preserve these functions and potentially reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases that impair memory and cognition.

How do neurons change over time?

Neuroplasticity, the brain’s adaptability, allows neurons to alter their connections and functions based on experiences, learning, and injury.

Every new experience or memory reshapes your neuronal connections, enabling adaptation, learning, and memory formation.

Learning is an example of neuroplasticity in action. As you learn, neurons activate and form new synapses, a process crucial to learning and memory formation known as long-term potentiation (LTP).

Post-injury, particularly to the brain or spinal cord, neuroplasticity aids in the recovery of functions. Neurons surrounding the injury adjust their connections and function to compensate for lost neurons, forming the basis for brain and spinal cord rehabilitation.

Neuroplasticity isn’t limited to youth; it persists throughout life. Despite a reduction in the brain’s plasticity with age, the capacity for change never entirely vanishes.

In summary, the adaptability of neurons enables our growth, learning, memory formation, and recovery. Lifelong learning and continuous stimulation are critical to maintaining this adaptability, supporting brain health and combatting cognitive decline.

What conditions and disorders affect the nerves?

Just as a smoothly functioning nervous system is key to health and well-being, disorders that affect nerve cells can severely impact individuals’ lives. Numerous conditions can affect neurons, leading to a wide range of symptoms. Here are a few examples:

1. Peripheral neuropathy: This is nerve damage caused by several conditions, including autoimmune diseases, diabetes, alcoholism, and poor dietary choices.

2. Trauma: Trauma, like a brain or spinal cord injury, can damage the nervous system.

3. Infections: Infections like meningitis, encephalitis, and polio can cause disorders of the nervous system.

4. Autoimmune disorders: A variety of different types of autoimmune diseases can produce symptoms of nerve pain and nerve damage, including multiple sclerosis, lupus, and Guillain-Barré syndrome.

5. Cancer: Cancer can cause nerve pain and nerve damage in multiple ways, including pushing against or crushing nerves, causing nutritional deficiencies that affect nerve function, or producing nerve pain and nerve damage as a side effect of chemotherapy or radiation.

6. Degenerative diseases: Degenerative diseases, where nerve cells are damaged or die, can cause disorders of the nervous system, like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

7. Nerve compression/nerve entrapments: Conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome and cubital tunnel syndrome can cause nerve compression and entrapment.

8. Nerve tumors: Tumors that grow on or near nerves can cause nerve damage and pain.

9. Seizure disorders: Seizure disorders, like epilepsy, can cause abnormal electrical activity in the brain and affect the nervous system.

How to keep your nerves healthy?

While some neuronal diseases are genetic and can’t be prevented, numerous lifestyle choices can promote neuron health and potentially delay the onset of neurological diseases. Here are a few critical strategies for taking care of your neurons:

1. Eat a brain-healthy diet

What you eat can significantly affect your brain health. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish, flaxseeds, and walnuts, are essential for maintaining the structure and function of neurons. 

Antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables can protect neurons from damage. And foods rich in vitamins E and B, like nuts, seeds, leafy greens, and whole grains, can support neuron health.

2. Stay physically active

Exercise not only benefits your body, but it also promotes brain health. Regular physical activity increases blood flow to the brain, supports the growth of new neurons, and aids in the formation of synapses. Try incorporating aerobic exercises, like jogging or biking, and resistance training into your routine.

3. Prioritize sleep

Sleep is crucial for brain health. During sleep, your brain clears out waste products and consolidates memories. Chronic sleep deprivation can harm neurons and contribute to neurological and psychiatric conditions.

4. Stimulate your mind

Keep your neurons active and engaged by challenging yourself mentally. This can be as simple as reading, doing puzzles, learning a new skill, or socializing. Regular mental stimulation can help maintain cognitive function and delay the onset of degenerative brain diseases.

5. Avoid harmful substances

Alcohol, nicotine, and illicit drugs can all harm neurons. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation, and avoid tobacco and illegal substances entirely. Also, be mindful of medications; some, like certain sleep aids and antihistamines, can affect brain function if overused.

6. Manage stress

Chronic stress can harm neurons and affect memory and learning. Find healthy ways to cope with stress, such as meditation, yoga, or other relaxation techniques.

Remember, it’s never too late to start caring for your brain. Implementing these changes at any age can improve your overall brain health and potentially prevent or delay the onset of neurological diseases.

Closing thoughts

The intricacies of neurons are a stepping stone to decoding the complexities of the human brain. These specialized cells, with varied structures and functions, are essential to our nervous system, enabling sensation, response to stimuli, and daily decision-making.

Their defining trait is their adaptability, underpinning our ability to learn, remember, and recover. This adaptability, or neuroplasticity, allows neurons to forge new connections and alter existing ones, adapting based on our experiences and injuries.

Knowing the different neuron types and their collaborative work provides insight into our nervous system, crucial for managing neurological disorders. In light of increasing neurodegenerative disorders prevalence, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, this understanding becomes even more essential.


Where are nerve cells found?

Nerve cells, or neurons, are primarily found in the brain and spinal cord, which comprise the central nervous system. However, they are also distributed throughout the body as part of the peripheral nervous system, extending to muscles, skin, and organs to relay sensory and motor information.

What is the main function of a nerve cell?

The primary function of a nerve cell, or neuron, is to transmit information through electrical and chemical signals. This enables communication within the nervous system, facilitating sensory perception, motor function, and complex cognitive processes such as learning and memory.

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