Electrical Synapses

Electrical synapses are gap junctions. When present between neurons, they are very different from chemical synapses where the separateness of the cells is not in question. They allow the direct spread of current from one cell to another, without delay or need for receptor and decoding systems. But the individuality of the coupled cells is partly lost, and hence their utility is diminished for large nervous systems with labeled lines like those of mammals. Electrical synapses are common in invertebrate and nonmammalian nervous systems but infrequent in mammals except between neuroglial cells, where they offer the chief mode of communication. Yet they have been found between mammalian neurons and shown to transmit in a few cases. In the embryonic CNS, they are seen in many places, even in the cerebral cortex, but decline in number as chemical synapses develop. In the adult, they are usually found in cell clusters that fire action potentials synchronously, as in the lateral vestibular nucleus, which effects a rapid increase in ipsilateral extensor tone for postural maintenance, or clusters that spread influences widely, like the horizontal cells of the retina. Studies show that electrical synapses can be modulated, that they may have mechanisms favoring unidirectional conduction, and that electrical and chemical synapses have important reciprocal influences.

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