Nerves carry signals throughout the body initiating activity in the body and brain. What has been slow to grasp is the role of the cell membrane in carrying those signals. The membrane is the covering and protection of our nerves. It also houses (embraces) the electrolyte enzymes in its thin encasing sliver. The enzymes set up the metabolic environment in the body to enable signaling to occur. Nerves can be viewed similarly to the wiring in our homes. Both deliver energy to do work. No wires no signal; no membrane, also no signal, but of course, no cell as well.
Signal propagation in the body is a bit different than sending power to our homes but a wiring is necessary for both. The nerve is a specialized cell but it has all the standard cellular components of all cells, however, it is made up of a vast network of axons and branches that carry the signals managing our thoughts and actions. The signals travel on those specialized limbs which are endowed with the same structural membrane that encase all our cells throughout the body and the brain. In the nerves the membrane is the roadway for the message.
Producing electricity for our homes involves huge rotating generators that wipe off electrons and chase them back and forth in the power grid which we then tap into to run our homes and offices. For our body we use a far more efficient system to build the electrical force - charge separation,
To maintain charge separation (potassium on the inside, sodium on the outside), we use a large amount of energy estimated to be ~half of all we produce. It’s quite a system. There are thousands of sodium-potassium pumps on the membrane of every cell with the role of collecting 3 sodium ions from the inside of the cell - dumping them out – picking up 2 potassium ions from the blood stream and taking them in. Each ion channel engineers that hundreds of times per micro second. The result is a high differential on either side of the membrane of every cell, potassium on the inside - sodium on the outside.
To initiate a signal a sodium ion channel (a gang of them all at once) opens and lets a flood of Na ions in. Like opening the flood gates because thousands of sodium ions rush in per microsecond through each one. The result is a change in polarity that starts the signal propagation down the nerve so we can wiggle our nose or blink an eye.
The juice to run our lights and TVs travels on a copper wire surrounded by a plastic cover for insulation. Not so in our bodies, our signals dance on our insulating membrane as the channels open and close in rapid sequence. Our signals do not move down the center of our nerves; they travel on the outside skin, the membrane. The actual signal may be a rapid change of ph but the signal actually occurs on the membrane.
Mitochondria are tiny energy generators in every cell that produce ATP, our tiny batteries. It’s a process called “electron chain transfer”. It’s also referred to as the “citric acid cycle”, or “Krebs cycle”, from Hans Kreb, 1937. The first one is more graphic since an electron is moved forward in a chain-like transfer. There are ~2-500 mitochondria in every cell, 20,000 or more in a heart cell. The chain transfer cycle occurs inside the mitochondrion with special molecules that sit (of course) on the membrane; they take an electron (-) from a hydrogen atom and keep it occupied while flipping the proton (+) on the other side of the membrane thereby separating the electron from the proton. The electrons (-) all remain on the inside, in the matrix of the mitochondria, while the protons (+) collect on the outside of the membrane. That separation of using the membrane as the insulator is our power grid in miniature. Accumulating the protons (+s) becomes the force to do work.
The end product is energy (ATP) and water. The mitochondria employ the membrane as the key player for the production of energy, which is a far more elegant electrical system than what we use.
All membranes are composed of molecules called phospholipids (PLs) with each having two fatty acid tails. It looks like a double sticked lollypop. The tails are strings of carbon some of which we can make and some come only from the diet. The double sticks, the fatty acid strings, are either saturated or unsaturated and come in a wide variety, but the really important ones are the poly-unsaturated, the omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids. They are essential, meaning they must be in our diet. Those EFAs, the essential fatty acids, are the basic building blocks of the membrane and the beginning of life. The truth is finally out, we’re all made of fat.
Wherever we look, the star of the show is the membrane, a thin sliver of fat surrounding every cell. It separates the inside of the cell, the cytosol, from the outside. Its size and shape is identical in all of life, including the cells of animals, plants, bacteria, nerves, etc. It’s composed mostly of fats and lipids that make it a perfect insulator, permitting the vital differential charge which the cell uses to either send a signal or to get out of here quick, there’s danger ahead. The membrane may be the skin on the perimeter of the cell but it is truly the center of life.
Neurologists are well aware of the electron chain transfer and the production of energy in the mitochondria. They also know that all signals are propelled down the nerve on the membrane for thought, pleasure and pain, basically for everything we think or do. Sending the signal on its way is only possible if the membrane enzyme complex has first done its job for charge separation. The cell membrane never sleeps - working continuously to be ready to propagate the next signal on command. Every doctor and especially every neurologist are well aware, or should be, of these basic characteristics.
If so --- is it a correct proposition that the first order of the day would be to feed the right EFAs into our bodies -- and if we did, would that enhance the health of the membranes of our neurons? YES – without question, they are constantly rebuilding. Would that in turn influence signal transmission? YES - of course. How about memory? YES again. Then why isn’t the health of the membrane the first consideration, the first choice of treatment for all neurological disorders that plague society such as Parkinson’s, MS, Fibromyalgia, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, palsy, etc.? Why indeed!
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