The Action Potential

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OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

Source: OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

Resting membrane potential describes the steady state of the cell, which is a dynamic process that is balanced by ion leakage and ion pumping. Without any outside influence, it will not change. To get an electrical signal started, the membrane potential has to change.

This starts with a channel opening for Na+ in the membrane. Because the concentration of Na+ is higher outside the cell than inside the cell by a factor of 10, ions will rush into the cell that are driven largely by the concentration gradient. Because sodium is a positively charged ion, it will change the relative voltage immediately inside the cell relative to immediately outside. The resting potential is the state of the membrane at a voltage of -70 mV, so the sodium cation entering the cell will cause it to become less negative. This is known as depolarization, meaning the membrane potential moves toward zero.

The concentration gradient for Na+ is so strong that it will continue to enter the cell even after the membrane potential has become zero, so that the voltage immediately around the pore begins to become positive. The electrical gradient also plays a role, as negative proteins below the membrane attract the sodium ion. The membrane potential will reach +30 mV by the time sodium has entered the cell.

As the membrane potential reaches +30 mV, other voltage-gated channels are opening in the membrane. These channels are specific for the potassium ion. A concentration gradient acts on K+ , as well. As K+ starts to leave the cell, taking a positive charge with it, the membrane potential begins to move back toward its resting voltage. This is called repolarization, meaning that the membrane voltage moves back toward the -70 mV value of the resting membrane potential.

Repolarization returns the membrane potential to the -70 mV value that indicates the resting potential, but it actually overshoots that value. Potassium ions reach equilibrium when the membrane voltage is below -70 mV, so a period of hyperpolarization occurs while the K+ channels are open. Those K+ channels are slightly delayed in closing, accounting for this short overshoot.

What has been described here is the action potential. It is the electrical signal that nervous tissue generates for communication. The change in the membrane voltage from -70 mV at rest to +30 mV at the end of depolarization is a 100-mV change. That can also be written as a 0.1-V change. To put that value in perspective, think about a battery. An AA battery that you might find in a television remote has a voltage of 1.5 V, or a 9-V battery (the rectangular battery with two posts on one end) is, obviously, 9 V. The change seen in the action potential is one or two orders of magnitude less than the charge in these batteries. In fact, the membrane potential can be described as a battery. A charge is stored across the membrane that can be released under the correct conditions. A battery in your remote has stored a charge that is “released” when you push a button.

The question is, now, what initiates the action potential? The description above conveniently glosses over that point. But it is vital to understanding what is happening. The membrane potential will stay at the resting voltage until something changes. The description above just says that a Na+ channel opens. Now, to say “a channel opens” does not mean that one individual transmembrane protein changes. Instead, it means that one kind of channel opens. There are a few different types of channels that allow Na+ to cross the membrane. A ligand-gated Na+ channel will open when a neurotransmitter binds to it and a mechanically gated Na+ channel will open when a physical stimulus affects a sensory receptor (like pressure applied to the skin compresses a touch receptor). Whether it is a neurotransmitter binding to its receptor protein or a sensory stimulus activating a sensory receptor cell, some stimulus gets the process started. Sodium starts to enter the cell and the membrane becomes less negative.

A third type of channel that is an important part of depolarization in the action potential is the voltage-gated Na+ channel. The channels that start depolarizing the membrane because of a stimulus help the cell to depolarize from -70 mV to -55 mV. Once the membrane reaches that voltage, the voltage-gated Na+ channels open. This is what is known as the threshold. Any depolarization that does not change the membrane potential to -55 mV or higher will not reach threshold and thus will not result in an action potential. Also, any stimulus that depolarizes the membrane to -55 mV or beyond will cause a large number of channels to open and an action potential will be initiated.

Because of the threshold, the action potential can be likened to a digital event—it either happens or it does not. If the threshold is not reached, then no action potential occurs. If depolarization reaches -55 mV, then the action potential continues and runs all the way to +30 mV, at which K+ causes repolarization, including the hyperpolarizing overshoot. Also, those changes are the same for every action potential, which means that once the threshold is reached, the exact same thing happens. A stronger stimulus, which might depolarize the membrane well past threshold, will not make a “bigger” action potential. Action potentials are “all or none.” Either the membrane reaches the threshold and everything occurs as described above, or the membrane does not reach the threshold and nothing else happens. All action potentials peak at the same voltage (+30 mV), so one action potential is not bigger than another. Stronger stimuli will initiate multiple action potentials more quickly, but the individual signals are not bigger. Thus, for example, you will not feel a greater sensation of pain, or have a stronger muscle contraction, because of the size of the action potential because they are not different sizes.

As we have seen, the depolarization and repolarization of an action potential are dependent on two types of channels (the voltage-gated Na+ channel and the voltage-gated K+ channel). The voltage-gated Na+ channel actually has two gates. One is the activation gate, which opens when the membrane potential crosses -55 mV. The other gate is the inactivation gate, which closes after a specific period of time—on the order of a fraction of a millisecond. When a cell is at rest, the activation gate is closed and the inactivation gate is open. However, when the threshold is reached, the activation gate opens, allowing Na+ to rush into the cell. Timed with the peak of depolarization, the inactivation gate closes. During repolarization, no more sodium can enter the cell. When the membrane potential passes -55 mV again, the activation gate closes. After that, the inactivation gate re-opens, making the channel ready to start the whole process over again.

The voltage-gated K+ channel has only one gate, which is sensitive to a membrane voltage of -50 mV. However, it does not open as quickly as the voltage-gated Na+ channel does. It might take a fraction of a millisecond for the channel to open once that voltage has been reached. The timing of this coincides exactly with when the Na+ flow peaks, so voltage-gated K+ channels open just as the voltage-gated Na+ channels are being inactivated. As the membrane potential repolarizes and the voltage passes -50 mV again, the channel closes—again, with a little delay. Potassium continues to leave the cell for a short while and the membrane potential becomes more negative, resulting in the hyperpolarizing overshoot. Then the channel closes again and the membrane can return to the resting potential because of the ongoing activity of the non-gated channels and the Na+ /K+ pump.

All of this takes place within approximately 2 milliseconds. While an action potential is in progress, another one cannot be initiated. That effect is referred to as the refractory period. There are two phases of the refractory period: the absolute refractory period and the relative refractory period. During the absolute phase, another action potential will not start. This is because of the inactivation gate of the voltage-gated Na+ channel. Once that channel is back to its resting conformation (less than -55 mV), a new action potential could be started, but only by a stronger stimulus than the one that initiated the current action potential. This is because of the flow of K+ out of the cell. Because that ion is rushing out, any Na+ that tries to enter will not depolarize the cell, but will only keep the cell from hyperpolarizing.


Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: