We are juiced. From head to toe, miles of membrane shuttle electric charges through the body. Impulses pour in to my brain from eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin as raw versions of what I see on this screen, the feeling of the keys at my fingertips, the tapping sounds; then out from the brain through the wires to the muscles in my hands and fingers to type the s e l e t t e r s.
Simple nerve systems appeared in early jellyfish and other sea creatures about 500 million years ago. Loose nets of nerves responded to light and the touch of other creatures as these swimmers captured smaller fish and dodged bigger ones.
Much earlier, in the first fully developed cells, neurons began to evolve from membranes. A membrane, in Wikipedia’s words, is “a selective barrier; it allows some things to pass through but stops others.” A cell’s membrane helped the cell manage the salt levels inside the cell as it floated through the salty ocean. And since the salts of sodium, potassium and calcium consist of atoms with a positive or negative charge, the pores in membranes became gates that opened and closed to control the electrical potential across the membrane itself.
As animals evolved, such membranes lengthened into neurons with conductive axons, the “wire” of the nerve cell. In us, the longest axon runs down the length of each leg, branching as it goes. The shortest axons, fractions of a millimeter, fill our heads by the billions.
The axons don’t carry an electric charge in the way that a wire carries electricity or a lightning bolt of electrons crashes to the ground. Instead, think of the wave at a sports stadium, where groups of fans stand up, throw their hands in the air, and sit down in a spontaneous sequence that moves through the rows. A nerve impulse moves down the axon in a similar way, charged atoms crossing through opened pores from one side of the membrane to the other and then quickly back again while the “wave” of the electric charge moves along.
The impulse never varies in strength. It is either on or off, either moving or only ready to move. There are no drops in the current, no power failures, no biological surge protectors needed. If a muscle must contract to move a load, the nerve signal, always at the same strength, simply repeats rapidly enough so that the muscle cells remain contracted.
At both ends of the axon, where the impulse begins and ends, devices of various kinds translate between the electrical charge and other structures. In the ear, sound waves cause small hairs to vibrate and set off the impulses that we hear as “hello.” In our eyes, light causes molecular changes that trigger the impulses to the brain to form the image we recognize as a chair. Where a neuron terminates at a muscle cell, the final “wave” triggers chemicals that start the muscle’s contraction.
We barely notice all this wizardry. Compared to the breath that we can feel and the blood we can see, our circuitry is undetectable. But if we’ve been shocked by a faulty toaster or we suffer from numbness or irregular heartbeats, we’ve glimpsed what can go wrong.
In another way, though, we are always aware of the electricity in us. Notice the faint tingle that is always present in our limbs and head. It’s a sense of animation, a potential, an ability to move a muscle, look around or think a thought at any time. That tingly readiness is, essentially, our neurons at the ready. It’s a reminder that we’re alive.