Musings of a Political Scientist

Neurobiology

3D Neuron Field by Bryan Brandenburg

Neurobiology

The brain is composed of two broad classes of cells, neurons and glia, both of which contain several different cell types which perform different functions. Interconnected neurons form neural networks (or neural ensembles). These networks are similar to man-made electrical circuits in that they contain circuit elements (neurons) connected by biological wires (nerve fibers). These do not form simple one-to-one electrical circuits like many man-made circuits, however. Typically neurons connect to at least a thousand other neurons. These highly specialized circuits make up systems which are the basis of perception, different types of action, and higher cognitive function.

Histology

Neurons are the cells that generate action potentials and convey information to other cells; these constitute the essential class of brain cells and are schematically illustrated above.

In addition to neurons, the brain contains glial cells in a roughly 10:1 proportion to neurons. Glial cells (“glia” is Greek for “glue”) form a support system for neurons. They create the insulating myelin, provide structure to the neuronal network, manage waste, and clean up neurotransmitters. Most types of glia in the brain are present in the entire nervous system. Exceptions include the oligodendrocytes which myelinate neural axons (a role performed by Schwann cells in the peripheral nervous system). The myelin in the oligodendrocytes insulates the axons of some neurons. White matter in the brain is myelinated neurons, while grey matter contains mostly cell soma, dendrites, and unmyelinated portions of axons and glia. The space between neurons is filled with dendrites as well as unmyelinated segments of axons; this area is referred to as the neuropil.