Glossary of Terms!
Neurotransmitters are endogenous chemicals which transmit signals from a neuron to a target cell across a synapse. Neurotransmitters are packaged into synaptic vesicles clustered beneath the membrane on the presynaptic side of a synapse, and are released into the synaptic cleft, where they bind to receptors in the membrane on the postsynaptic side of the synapse. Release of neurotransmitters usually follows arrival of an action potential at the synapse, but may also follow graded electrical potentials. Low level "baseline" release also occurs without electrical stimulation.
Until the early 20th century, scientists assumed that synaptic communication was electrical. However, through the careful histological examinations of Ramón y Cajal (1852–1934), a 20 to 40 nm gap between neurons, known today as the synaptic cleft, was discovered. This discovery cast doubt on the existence of electrical transmission. In 1921, German pharmacologist Otto Loewi (1873–1961) confirmed that neurons communicate by releasing chemicals. Through a series of experiments involving the vagus nerves of frogs, Loewi was able to manually control the heart rate of frogs by controlling the amount of saline solution present around the vagus nerve. Upon completion of this experiment, Loewi asserted that neurons do not communicate with electric signals but rather through the change in chemical concentrations. Furthermore, Otto Loewi is accredited with discovering acetylcholine—the first known neurotransmitter.
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