What is Resting Membrane Potential?
All living cells have an electrical potential, or voltage, across their outer membranes. Thisvoltage, called resting membrane potential, is created by ions inside and outside of the cell. Ionsare electrically charged atoms, or molecules, so if the concentration of an ion differs on either side of a cellular membrane, electrical voltage can result. Voltage is the separation of positiveand negative charges across a resistive barrier, and in the case of cells, the cell membraneprovides the resistive barrier.In most cells, there is a higher concentration of potassium (K+) inside than outside the cell and ahigher concentration of chloride (Cl-) and sodium (Na+) outside the cell than inside. It takesenergy for cells to maintain different internal ion concentrations than the extracellular milieu,because ions can enter and exit the cell by diffusing through the membrane, and by movingthough protein channels. Cells use a sodium/potassium pump to constantly expel three sodiumions from the cell, each time two potassium ions are moved inside the cell. The cell membrane isfairly permeable to potassium ions, however, so potassium ions diffuse out of the cell, leavingbehind them a net negative charge at the interior side of the cell membrane. This net negativecharge means that the resting membrane potential of the average cell is about -70 milivolts
Mechanism of an Action Potential:
The resting membrane potential sets the stage for communication and movement in neurons andmuscle cells. An action potential is the mechanism neurons use to send signals to other neurons,or to muscle cells. When a nerve is stimulated, protein channels in the membrane open, and letsodium into the cell, making the membrane potential more positive. This depolarization of themembrane spreads down the length of a neuron until it reaches the point at which the neuronconnects with a muscle cell, or another neuron. At that point, the depolarization cause the releaseof signaling molecules, which, in turn, cause an action potential in the muscle cell or secondnerve cell.Shortly after the sodium channels open, potassium channels open as well, letting potassium outof the cell and making the membrane potential more negative again (repolarization
). The cycle of depolarization and repolarization caused by the opening of sodium and potassium channels iscalled an action potential. Potassium channels let enough potassium out of the cell that themembrane potential is actually a little more negative than -70 milivolts after the completion of anaction potential. A resting membrane potential of -70 milivolts returns quickly, however, becauseof the constant action of sodium/potassium pumps, which maintain physiologically appropriatelevels of sodium and potassium in the cell. Once resting membrane potential has been restored,the cell is competent to undergo another action potential.
A major contribution to establishing the membrane potential is made by the sodium-potassiumexchange pump. This is a complex of proteins embedded in the membrane that derives energy