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What Are Nerve Cells? - Function, Types & Structure

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  • 0:01 What Is the Nervous System?
  • 0:29 What Are Nerve Cells?
  • 0:53 Classes of Neurons
  • 1:36 Example: Parts of a…
  • 3:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: John Williams
Nerve cells are the primary cells in the nervous system. They are responsible for relaying electrical messages to cells and tissues in other organ systems. This article discusses the functions and structures of nerve cells in the human body.

What Is the Nervous System?

The nervous system serves as the manager of the body, since it controls the functions of every other system. It communicates with bodily systems in order to coordinate performance and to provide the needs of the body from moment to moment. In order to do this job, the nervous system employs the use of specialized cells, and these cells relay the messages to the necessary tissues, organs, and systems.

What Are Nerve Cells?

Neurons are nerve cells, or cells found in the nervous system. These are specialized cells designed to stimulate other cells in the body in order to communicate. Neurons are excitable, which means they function by using electrical stimulation. Through this electrical message, known as an action potential, neurons are able to initiate action in the cells they target.

Classes of Neurons

Neurons come in three functional classes. These classes are derived from the amount of cell extensions that are found on the cell body, or soma. Unipolar neurons are nerve cells that have one extension connected to the soma. These cells are often used in afferent nervous system function, which means that it involves the senses. Bipolar neurons are nerve cells that have two projections and are used in specialized sense detection, such as in smell and sight. Multipolar neurons are nerve cells that have many cell extensions, including dendrites, which are receiving pathways, and typically one axon, which is a delivering pathway.

Example: Parts of a Multipolar Neuron

For the sake of demonstration, we will discuss the parts of multipolar neurons, since these are the typical example used in discussing nerve cells. It's important to understand that these parts are also found in the other types but are located in different places.

The soma is the cell body of the neuron and is responsible for protein synthesis and the basic cell processes that we associate with a body cell. Unlike other cells in the body, neurons do not undergo cell division, so the soma is typically critical in the health of the cell. Without cell division, nerves cannot produce more nerves, and therefore, when the soma is damaged, nerve tissue is lost.

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