The transmission of each action potential along a nerve fiber reduces very slightly the concentration differences of sodium and potassium inside and outside the membrane, because sodium ions diffuse to the inside during depolarization and potassium ions diffuse to the outside during repolarization. For a single action potential, this effect is so minute that it cannot be measured. Indeed, 100,000 to 50 million impulses can be transmitted by large nerve fibers before the concentration differences reach the point that action potential conduction ceases. Even so, with time, it becomes necessary to re-establish the sodium and potassium membrane concentration differences. This is achieved by action of the Na+-K+ pump in the same way as described previously for the original establishment of the resting potential. That is, sodium ions that have diffused to the interior of the cell during the action potentials and potassium ions that have diffused to the exterior must be returned to
their original state by the Na+-K+ pump. Because this pump requires energy for operation, this “recharging” of the nerve fiber is an active metabolic process, using energy derived from the adenosine triphosphate (ATP) energy system of the cell. Figure 5–12 shows that the nerve fiber produces excess heat during recharging, which is a measure of energy expenditure when the nerve impulse frequency increases.
A special feature of the Na+-K+ ATPase pump is that its degree of activity is strongly stimulated when excess sodium ions accumulate inside the cell membrane. In fact, the pumping activity increases approximately in proportion to the third power of this intracellular sodium concentration. That is, as the internal sodium concentration rises from 10 to 20 mEq/L, the activity of the pump does not merely double but increases about eightfold. Therefore, it is easy to understand how the “recharging” process of the nerve fiber can be set rapidly into motion whenever the concentration differences of sodium and potassium ions across the membrane begin to “run down.”
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