The Hidden Electrical World Inside Your Body
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The Hidden Electrical World Inside Your Body

The Hidden Electrical World Inside Your Body

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One of the things that makes the sense of
touch so amazing is how it’s actually multiple

senses wrapped into one. If I take any given
object around the studio here, I can detect

the object’s temperature and I can run my
fingers over it and pick up the shape. With

a little more sensation, I can pick up the
finer details like texture and grit, and how

The Hidden Electrical World Inside Your Body
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heavy it is or whether it’s moving. Omg
is it tacos? It’s tacos! The fact that

I could figure that out just with my hands
is kind of weird! The same tissue that senses

hot and cold also senses pressure, texture,
and even pain signals. And I could detect

all of that totally independently from my
other senses. If I had my eyes open and looked

lovingly at the tacos, I’d get new information
about them like the color but also solidify information

like shape.  All of this sensory information
is possible because I have a nervous system,

The Hidden Electrical World Inside Your Body
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one of our most intricate bodily systems that
also handles motor control among other things.

And this system is fast, with some nervous
impulses traveling up to 120 meters a second,

or over two hundred and sixty miles an hour.
That’s literally faster than a racecar.

The ultra-fast but diverse type of signaling
is thanks in part to a long, spindly cell

called the neuron that makes up the nervous
system. So today we’ll talk about how the

the nervous system can transmit information so
quickly, taking a closer look at the neuron

and how scientists are getting closer to reconstructing
the sense of touch in the lab. A few videos

The Hidden Electrical World Inside Your Body
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ago, we spent time talking about how different
messages get sent around your body, with an

emphasis on how cells communicate. We mentioned
close-range chemical messaging like paracrine

signaling, or the slow, long-distance messaging
of the endocrine system. Notice

that we didn’t talk about how the nervous
the system communicates messages. That’s because

everything about the nervous system is so
the complex that we’re dedicating this entire

episode to it. The big picture idea here is
that the nervous system is built to take messages

from point A to point B extremely quickly.
Point A could mean your brain and point B

is your muscles, but the nerves can go the
another way too. You can touch something with

your fingertips and send signals of temperature,
pressure, or vibration back to your brain,

or you can step on a LEGO and send pain signals.
Whichever direction your nervous system is

firing, it’s built for speed. So it’s
laid out in an organized way with two main

components. We’ll start with the brain
and spinal cord which make up your central

nervous system. We’re dedicating the next
video in the series to the brain, but for

now, let’s say that it wants to send a nervous
signal to your arm to tell it to move. That

impulse travels down your brain stem and into
your spinal cord which, despite what those

nervous system diagrams tend to show, ends
at the top of your lower back, not down at

your pelvis. Eventually, that impulse will
get to the level of the anatomy it innervates,

or supplies with nerves. In practice, we’d
say that the femoral nerve innervates the

quadriceps muscles. I used to think of innervation
as “plugging in” to a muscle or organ,

but as we’ll see later, there really is
no plug. Do you see a USB on this thing? I didn’t

think so. Now, on the spinal cord, you’ll
notice two little nerve roots. The one in

front, or the ventral root, sends down motor
messages from the brain while the dorsal

root in the back sends up sensory information
to the brain. There’s nothing special about

dorsal or ventral by the way, those terms
just mean back and front respectively. But

yes, it’s the same dorsal as in dorsal fin. There
you go, a little animal anatomy connection

for ya. After passing through the spinal roots,
now we’ve entered a new part of the nervous

system called the peripheral nervous system.
These are all the spindly neurons that branch

off into the complex network of nerves we’re
used to seeing on diagrams. There are also

some nerves in the peripheral nervous system
that branch directly off the brain that hook

up to the eyes, ears, and the rest of the
face called the cranial nerves. Once we get

to the peripheral nervous system, our nerves
are heading to their destination tissue, which

is where we start seeing some differences. 
You can have fibers that send a motor signal

from the brain to the muscles or glands, and
you can have sensory signals coming from the

skin, eyes or any other organ. Those
nerve roots in the peripheral nervous system

branch off into multiple individual neurons,
the cells that transmit impulses around the

body. And that’s important to remember,
neurons are cells. These special cells are

often called the electrical wires of the nervous
system but they’re so much more than that

— they’re living, metabolizing cells. We
can see that firsthand when we zoom into the

cellular level. We see familiar cell structures
like a nucleus with DNA, or mitochondria and

other organelles inside the cell body. But
we also see plenty of specialized structures

that all help neurons send their message across
the body like dendrites, axons, the myelin

sheath, and axon terminals. Let’s start
at the dendrites, those tentacle-looking things

branching off of the cell body. These dendrites
collect chemical signals from other cells,

which eventually sends an electrical impulse 
down the axon, this long branch here. Axons

are sometimes coated in these fatty cells
that form the myelin sheath around an axon

which makes the nervous impulse travel along
the nerve faster. Once the impulse makes it

to the end of the axon, it stimulates these
tiny branches, the axon terminal, which releases

some chemicals into the synapse, the junction
between it and the neuron, it attaches to.

But as we talked about in that cell communication
video, our bodies speak a language of chemicals.

So let’s get into what that language actually
is. Within the axon terminals are little containers

that carry neurotransmitters, chemicals that
signal the neurons to do different things.

Neurotransmitters are made from all kinds
of different chemicals and amino acids. Currently,

we’ve identified at least dozens of
neurotransmitters. For instance, you might’ve

heard the neurotransmitters serotonin or dopamine,
referred to as the happiness chemicals since

they get attention for regulating mood. Both
of those neurotransmitters do other jobs too

though. Like dopamine can help regulate blood
vessel dilation and serotonin has a role in

the gut plus a lot more. You’ve also got
some like acetylcholine which is important

for the autonomic nervous system, or GABA,
an extremely common inhibitory neurotransmitter.

The point is, these chemicals themselves are
diverse and have lots of messages they can

send. And since each of these neurotransmitters
is so unique, they fit into unique receptors

once they float across the synapse. That
means that, yes, synapses take advantage of

paracrine signaling. Excellent connection
to one of our past episodes, you get a gold

star. One of the other things that make neurons
so useful is the sheer diversity of tissues

they can interface with. The way your eyes
detect wavelengths of light is different than

how your tongue tastes the salsa on your tacos.
The point is, they all attach to neurons.

We even have variation within the same sense. Your
sense of touch alone has multiple kinds of

touch receptors, including different ones
for touch and others for temperature. Understanding

how these touch receptors work can help us
solve some big challenges in medical technology.

New research published earlier this year in
Scientific Reports worked on restoring the

sense of touch to folks with forearm amputations
with some slick robotics. When someone receives

an amputation like this, one of the consequences
is a loss of sense of touch given that their

the hand was removed. Their overall nervous system
still works, but their quality of life would

be greatly improved with the ability to feel
different things. Prosthetic hands have come

a long way and in the past, they’ve even
successfully passed on sensory cues from the

prosthetic hand to the user’s brain, which
is awesome! But of course, this technology

still needs improvements before it can perfectly
mimic the sense of touch. In particular, we

need it to create a more life-like connection
to the peripheral nerves than we currently

have. So a team of researchers in Italy came
up with a technique called morphological neural

a computation that could improve prosthetic
hand design. Their design uses a robotic fingertip

to feel sensory information then converts
that into an electrical pattern that replicates

what the mechanical receptors in the fingers
would have felt, then relay that signal

to electrodes implanted in the patient’s
arm stump. Using this new type of stimulation,

patients were able to consistently detect
very fine detail. After a trip through the

the nervous system, that information made it back
to the brain. But what does the brain actually

do with that information once the neurons
carry nervous impulses to it?

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