Conduction in an Unmyelinated Axon

In an unmyelinated axon, every patch of membrane that contains Na+ and K+ gates can produce an action potential. Action potentials are thus produced along the entire length of the axon. The cablelike spread of depolarization induced by the influx of Na+ during one action potential helps to depolarize the adjacent regions of membrane—a process that is also aided by movements of ions on the outer surface of the axon membrane (fig. 7.17). This process would depolarize the adjacent membranes on each side of the region to produce an action potential, but the area that had previously produced one cannot produce another at this time because it is still in its refractory period.

It is important to recognize that action potentials are not really "conducted," although it is convenient to use that word. Each action potential is a separate, complete event that is repeated, or regenerated, along the axon's length. This is analogous to the "wave" performed by spectators in a stadium. One person after another gets up (depolarization) and then sits down (repolarization); it is thus the "wave" (spread of action potentials) that travels, not the people (individual action potentials).

The action potential produced at the end of the axon is thus a completely new event that was produced in response to depolarization from the previous action potential. The last action potential has the same amplitude as the first. Action potentials are thus said to be conducted without decrement (without decreasing in amplitude).

The spread of depolarization by the cable properties of an axon is fast compared to the time it takes to produce an action potential. Thus, the more action potentials along a given stretch of axon that have to be produced, the slower the conduction. Since action potentials must be produced at every fraction of a micrometer in an unmyelinated axon, the conduction rate is relatively slow. This conduction rate is somewhat faster if the un-myelinated axon is thicker, because thicker axons have less resistance to the flow of charges (so conduction of charges by cable properties is faster). The conduction rate is substantially faster if the axon is myelinated because fewer action potentials are produced along a given length of myelinated axon.

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