From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
In the nervous system, a synapse is a junction that permits a neuron to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another cell (neural or otherwise). The word "synapse" comes from "synaptein", which Sir Charles Scott Sherrington and colleagues coined from the Greek "syn-" ("together") and "haptein" ("to clasp").
Synapses are essential to neuronal function: neurons are cells that are specialized to pass signals to individual target cells, and synapses are the means by which they do so. At a synapse, the plasma membrane of the signal-passing neuron (the presynaptic neuron) comes into close apposition with the membrane of the target (postsynaptic) cell. Both the presynaptic and postsynaptic sites contain extensive arrays of molecular machinery that link the two membranes together and carry out the signaling process. In many synapses, the presynaptic part is located on an axon, but some presynaptic sites are located on a dendrite or soma.
There are two fundamentally different types of synapse:
- In a chemical synapse, the presynaptic neuron releases a chemical called a neurotransmitter that binds to receptors located in the postsynaptic cell, usually embedded in the plasma membrane. Binding of the neurotransmitter to a receptor can affect the postsynaptic cell in a wide variety of ways.
- In an electrical synapse, the presynaptic and postsynaptic cell membranes are connected by channels that are capable of passing electrical current, causing voltage changes in the presynaptic cell to induce voltage changes in the postsynaptic cell.
Synaptic communication is distinct from ephaptic coupling, in which communication between neurons occurs via indirect electric fields.