Structure of a typical neuron.
A neuron, or nerve cell, is a cell that supports the functions of the nervous system by reacting to stimuli and transmitting nerve impulses. It is highly specialized and amitotic. The term "amitotic" means that if a neuron is destroyed it cannot be replaced, because neurons do not undergo mitosis.
Each neuron consists of three basic parts: a cell body (soma) that contains the nucleus; one or more dendrites, which are short branches off the body that receive incoming impulses; and a single, long axon that carries impulses away from the body and to the next neuron. Nerves consist of bundles of neurons.
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, which 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 central nervous system (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 central nervous system (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 (see sensory nerve). 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 (see motor neuron). 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.
Although the nervous system is very complex, there are only two main types of cells in nerve tissue. The actual nerve cell is the neuron. It is the "conducting" cell that transmits impulses and the structural unit of the nervous system. The other type of cell is the glial cell, or neuroglia. The word "neuroglia" means "nerve glue." Neuroglia cells do not conduct nerve impulses, but instead, they support, nourish, and protect the neurons. They are a special type of connective tissue for the nervous system. Glial cells are far more numerous than neurons and, unlike neurons, are capable of mitosis.