Establishing Resting Potential of a Neuron

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  • 0:02 Neuron
  • 0:49 Resting Potential
  • 2:45 Channels, Gates, & Pumps
  • 5:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

What happens to a neuron when it's not firing? In this lesson, we'll examine the resting potential of a neuron, including what it is, how it works, and how channels, gates, and pumps help establish the resting potential after a neuron fires.


Kendra is a member of her college's track team. She sprints and jumps hurdles, and (like most people) she is able to make her body move or stay still. But, how does that happen? How does Kendra deciding to move result in her body actually moving?

All this happens in Kendra's nervous system, or the brain and nerves that run throughout the body. The center of the nervous system is cells called neurons, which transfer information both within the brain and between the brain and the body.

For example, when Kendra wants to run, the neurons in her brain and body communicate with each other, resulting in the movement of her body. To better understand neurons, let's look at the resting potential of a neuron, including the channels, gates, and pumps that help establish a neuron's resting potential.

Resting Potential

When Kendra wants to move, she moves, and when she wants to stop and rest, she does. This is thanks to the neurons that she has in her nervous system. But, how exactly do they work?

Like Kendra, neurons aren't active all the time. When a cell is firing, it is in action, but when it is not firing, it is at rest. The resting potential of a neuron is the condition of the neuron when it is resting. There is still potential for it to fire, but it is not firing at the moment, which is why it is called the resting potential. Think about the resting potential like when Kendra is at the starting line; she's not moving yet, but she's ready to move at a moment's notice.

So, what is a neuron like during a resting potential? To understand that, you need to know that both inside and outside of the neuron is a liquid that's filled with many different ions and anions. Especially important when talking about the resting potential are the sodium and potassium ions.

Both sodium and potassium ions are positive, but the number of each type of ion inside and outside of the cell determines what the charge of the liquid is. For example, at rest there are more potassium ions inside the cell and more sodium ions outside of the cell. This makes the inside of the cell more negative than the outside of the cell during a resting potential.

Kendra gets that during resting potential, a neuron is more negative inside than outside. But what happens when a cell fires?

Like Kendra taking off for a race, when a cell fires it becomes active. At that point, sodium ions flood the inside of the cell, and potassium ions flow out of the cell. That makes the charge inside the cell more positive than the outside of the cell. This is the opposite of a resting potential, and it causes the neuron to send a message to the next neuron in line--like when Kendra runs the relay and hands the baton off to her teammate.

Channels, Gates, and Pumps

But wait! Just like when Kendra is running, after a neuron is active, it needs to return to its resting potential. How does it do that?

A neuron uses channels, gates, and pumps both during firing and afterwards to return to the resting potential. Let's look closer at what each of these are and how they are used to establish the resting potential.

Channels allow ions to flow through the membrane of the cell, which lets them move in and out of the cell. They usually let only one type of ion through. For example, a sodium channel lets sodium ions in or out of the neuron.

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