At the molecular level, the relationship between the membrane potential and Na+ permeability (Fig. 9A) is due to the existence of membrane channels that are selectively permeable to Na+ and that are opened or gated by the membrane potential. This discovery was made possible by the patch-clamp technique, which allows the conductance of individual channels to be measured. With the patch-clamp technique, a micropipette with a tip several microns in diameter is positioned so that the tip just touches the outer surface of the membrane. A high-resistance seal develops that allows the electrode and associated electronic circuitry to measure the current and thus the conductance of a small number of Na+ channels or, indeed, a single Na+ channel (Fig. 12). One of the major conclusions that has been derived from these studies is that, in response to membrane depolarization, single Na+ channels open in
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