Pyramidal Neuron from Healthy Person

Image Caption : Pyramidal Neuron from Healthy Person : Neurons are electrically excitable cells in the nervous system that process and transmit information. They are the core components of the brain, and spinal cord and peripheral nervous system.Neurons are typically composed of a cell body, a dendritic tree and an axon. Studies have shown dendrite loss in individuals with depression.

Pyramidal Cells

Projection neurons in the CEREBRAL CORTEX and the HIPPOCAMPUS. Pyramidal cells have a pyramid-shaped soma with the apex and an apical dendrite pointed toward the pial surface and other dendrites and an axon emerging from the base. The axons may have local collaterals but also project outside their cortical region.

National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine


Neurons, or nerve cells, carry out the functions of the nervous system by conducting nerve impulses. They are highly specialized and amitotic. This means that if a neuron is destroyed, it cannot be replaced because neurons do not go through mitosis. The image below illustrates the structure of a typical neuron.

Illustration of a neuron

Each neuron has three basic parts: cell body (soma), one or more dendrites, and a single axon.

Cell Body

In many ways, the cell body is similar to other types of cells. It has a nucleus with at least one nucleolus and contains many of the typical cytoplasmic organelles. It lacks centrioles, however. Because centrioles function in cell division, the fact that neurons lack these organelles is consistent with the amitotic nature of the cell.


Dendrites and axons are cytoplasmic extensions, or processes, that project from the cell body. They are sometimes referred to as fibers. Dendrites are usually, but not always, short and branching, which increases their surface area to receive signals from other neurons. The number of dendrites on a neuron varies. They are called afferent processes because they transmit impulses to the neuron cell body. There is only one axon that projects from each cell body. It is usually elongated and because it carries impulses away from the cell body, it is called an efferent process.


An axon may have infrequent branches called axon collaterals. Axons and axon collaterals terminate in many short branches or telodendria. The distal ends of the telodendria are slightly enlarged to form synaptic bulbs. Many axons are surrounded by a segmented, white, fatty substance called myelin or the myelin sheath. Myelinated fibers make up the white matter in the CNS, while cell bodies and unmyelinated fibers make the gray matter. The unmyelinated regions between the myelin segments are called the nodes of Ranvier.

In the peripheral nervous system, the myelin is produced by Schwann cells. The cytoplasm, nucleus, and outer cell membrane of the Schwann cell form a tight covering around the myelin and around the axon itself at the nodes of Ranvier. This covering is the neurilemma, which plays an important role in the regeneration of nerve fibers. In the CNS, oligodendrocytes produce myelin, but there is no neurilemma, which is why fibers within the CNS do not regenerate.

Functionally, neurons are classified as afferent, efferent, or interneurons (association neurons) according to the direction in which they transmit impulses relative to the central nervous system. Afferent, or sensory, neurons carry impulses from peripheral sense receptors to the CNS. They usually have long dendrites and relatively short axons. Efferent, or motor, neurons transmit impulses from the CNS to effector organs such as muscles and glands. Efferent neurons usually have short dendrites and long axons. Interneurons, or association neurons, are located entirely within the CNS in which they form the connecting link between the afferent and efferent neurons. They have short dendrites and may have either a short or long axon.


Neuroglia cells do not conduct nerve impulses, but instead, they support, nourish, and protect the neurons. They are far more numerous than neurons and, unlike neurons, are capable of mitosis.

National Cancer Institute / NIH

Inside the Brain: Neurons & Neural Circuits

Neurons are the basic working unit of the brain and nervous system. These cells are highly specialized for the function of conducting messages.

A neuron has three basic parts:

  • Cell bodywhich includes the nucleus, cytoplasm, and cell organelles. The nucleus contains DNA and information that the cell needs for growth, metabolism, and repair. Cytoplasm is the substance that fills a cell, including all the chemicals and parts needed for the cell to work properly including small structures called cell organelles.
  • Dendritesbranch off from the cell body and act as a neuron's point of contact for receiving chemical and electrical signals called impulses from neighboring neurons.
  • Axonwhich sends impulses and extends from cell bodies to meet and deliver impulses to another nerve cell. Axons can range in length from a fraction of an inch to several feet.

Illustration of axon terminal and neuron with highlight of synapse

Each neuron is enclosed by a cell membrane, which separates the inside contents of the cell from its surrounding environment and controls what enters and leaves the cell, and responds to signals from the environment; this all helps the cell maintain its balance with the environment.

Synapses are tiny gaps between neurons, where messages move from one neuron to another as chemical or electrical signals.

The brain begins as a small group of cells in the outer layer of a developing embryo. As the cells grow and differentiate, neurons travel from a central "birthplace" to their final destination. Chemical signals from other cells guide neurons in forming various brain structures. Neighboring neurons make connections with each other and with distant nerve cells (via axons) to form brain circuits. These circuits control specific body functions such as sleep and speech.

The brain continues maturing well into a person's early 20s. Knowing how the brain is wired and how the normal brain's structure develops and matures helps scientists understand what goes wrong in mental illnesses.

Scientists have already begun to chart how the brain develops over time in healthy people and are working to compare that with brain development in people mental disorders. Genes and environmental cues both help to direct this growth.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) / (NIH)

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