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What is a Nerve Cell?

By Jacob Queen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Nerve cells—also known as neurons—are the primary building blocks of the nervous system in humans and animals. On a fundamental level, a nerve cell functions by transmitting and receiving electrochemical messages. These messages can serve several purposes, including the transmission of sensory information to the central nervous system and the regulation and control of organs in the body. The function of a single nerve cell could be described as relatively straightforward, but when bundled together in groups, these cells can allow for complex processes like brain cognition.

Like most other cells in an organism, a nerve cell generally has both a nucleus and a cell body. Around the cell body, there are extensions called dendrites, which are specialized in receiving different kinds of stimuli depending on the location and purpose of the cell. Once the dendrites detect some form of stimuli, the cell body generates an electrical impulse called an action potential, which travels down a wire-like structure called an axon to its destination.

The three basic types of nerve cells are motor neurons, sensory neurons and interneurons. A motor neuron is a cell that transmits a signal to a muscle or gland. Sensory neurons receive information from sensory organs and transmit that information back to the central nervous system. Interneurons, which do most of the work in the brain and spinal cord, relay information between sensory and motor neurons. The speed of the electrical impulse that’s transmitted through a nerve cell can vary depending on a number of factors, but the average is about 200 mph (321.8688 kph), which is slower than electricity travels over a wire.

The average human brain has about 100 billion neurons and about 10 times as many glial support cells, which perform several vital functions that help the neurons work properly. One difference between neurons and other cells in the body is their lifespan. While most cells die and are replaced in relatively short cycles, research has shown that many neurons in the body aren’t replaced, and some will last for a person’s entire life. Over the course of a long lifespan, some neurons will gradually die off, but there are generally more than enough surviving neurons to compensate for any normal losses. Scientists have discovered that one part of the brain called the hippocampus has the capacity to regenerate lost neurons, but this does not appear to be possible anywhere else in the body.

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Discussion Comments

By JavaGhoul — On Mar 03, 2011

Nerve cells are very electric, in that they transmit signals at a very rapid rate, affecting us at an electrochemical level that is truly our strongest sense of physical feeling. All of our feeling and sensing is ultimately a matter of the transmission of physical into meta-physical feeling, of chemical into energy feeling. This is how our souls interact with the everyday world using the brain.

By Proxy414 — On Mar 02, 2011


There are specific regions of the human brain which are specifically designed to help a human function well at a societal level. These would correspond roughly to Freud's view of a "superego," or higher, mutual, and spiritual, state of consciousness. It is this part of the brain that is the newest, and separates us from the animals in the most drastic manner. We are able to see and mimic behaviors which we see, and form analogies for various patterns of behavior and existence. This function of nerve cells is so intricate and amazing that some would call it miraculous.

By Leonidas226 — On Feb 28, 2011

The brain is like a vast bundle of nerve cells which interact and react in a manner that makes each brain seem like a massive computer or internet system. Not only is it like a computer, but the brain has the power to innovate and create new things, which is likely the greatest asset of the human race. We use our brains to think about everything, and are able to form our own ideas about how to best build societies and run the world.

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