What Are Neurons? Types, Functions, & More
Published by Dr. Venn-Watson
Dr. Eric Venn-Watson’s Highlights
- The central nervous system (CNS) and peripheral nervous system (PNS) are made up of neurons.
- Neurons communicate with one another to control many of our bodily activities and functions.
- Taking a supplement, like fatty15, can help support your neurons by supporting cellular health.*
Understanding neurons is a little like trying to understand aerospace engineering. Neuroscience, although interesting in its own right, is complicated, tedious, and probably a little impenetrably dense to the non-scientific researcher.
Regardless of your interest in neuroscience, it’s worth taking time to understand neurons, what they are, and how they work in your body (mostly since they’re responsible for just about everything you do).
Together, we’ll explore the world of neurons and talk about supporting your brain cells so you can think more clearly and decrease your brain fog.
What Are Neurons and What Do They Do?
Neurons are nerve cells located in different parts of the brain and nervous system. They are the fundamental messengers that our body relies on to carry out activities. They control electrical signals between our brains and our five senses, continually collecting data and sending it to the brain for processing.
We have about one hundred billion neurons in our bodies, which interact with our other cells in the central nervous system, collectively referred to as glia, or non-neural cells. Glial cells provide support for neurons.
The structure of neurons includes three main parts: a dendrite, an axon, and a soma.
The soma is the neuron cell body. This cell body houses the cell’s nucleus, DNA, and other organelles like mitochondria, the Golgi apparaturs, and the cytoplasm all of the aforementioned floats around in. It is also where protein synthesis occurs.
The dendrites branch off from the soma like tree branches. They receive messages from other neurons through a series of receptors. Dendrites can receive synaptic inputs from other neurons via chemical or electrical synapses.
Dendrites have spines that look like small twigs stemming from the branches. These are the sites of actual communication between neurons.
The axon looks like the root of the neuronal tree and carries messaging to be sent between one neuron and the next neuron.
Axons release neurotransmitters into the synapse (the space between two neurons), which are taken up by the dendrites on other neurons.
At the end of the axons are small, bulbous areas called the axon terminals, where neurotransmitters are stored (and released).
Protecting the entire neuron is the myelin sheath, a coating of protection made up of protein and fat. This sheath is made up of oligodendrocytes, or Schwann cells, depending on the part of the neuron the sheath is protecting. This sheath helps maximize conduction efficiency (i.e. what gets the messages sent from the “head” of the neuron to the “tail”).
Different Types of Neurons
There are three different types of neurons that help our bodies function.
Sensory neurons help your body collect data through sight, taste, smell, hearing, and touch. These neurons collect external stimuli and send them to your brain to adjust to keep your body in perfect homeostasis or balance.
An example of sensory neurons in action would be touching a hot stove and recoiling your hand from the heat. The sensory neurons in your hand detect the stove's heat and send a message to your brain telling it there is danger.
Bonus fact: There’s even a specific type of sensory neuron responsible for detecting pain, called a nociceptor.
These neurons control both involuntary movements as well as voluntary movements. They help your brain and spinal cord communicate with your muscles and organs that need to move to function.
Motor neurons can be broken down into two subcategories: upper motor neurons and lower motor neurons.
- Upper motor neurons carry messages between your brain and spinal cord.
- Lower motor neurons carry messages from the spinal cord to your muscles and skeletal system.
It probably goes without saying that both motor and sensory neurons need to communicate with one another for your body to work efficiently, which is why you have interneurons.
These are neurons found in your spinal cord and brain and are the most common form of neuron in your body. They carry messages between sensory neurons and motor neurons and between other interneurons.
They work like the go-between, facilitating chemical signals between all parts of your body to keep everything running smoothly. To this point, we’ll go back to the example of the hot stove.
If you touch a hot stove, sensory neurons send a message to the interneurons in your spinal cord. Lower motor neurons then send a message to the muscles in your finger to retract your hand, so you don’t get burned.
Other interneurons transmit a message to your brain that the stove is hot, and you experience pain (which keeps your fingers away from hot stoves).
Neuron Communication: How Neurons Work
We talked about action potentials being how neurotransmitters are released into the synapse, allowing neurons to communicate with one another. This is called a chemical synapse.
There’s another way neurons can communicate, too. Nerve impulses can carry signals between one neuron and the next by an electrical synapse.
Electrical synapses are communications via channel proteins, sometimes called ion channels. This means that instead of a neurotransmitter being released by one neuron and received by another, an electrical impulse is transmitted over a gap junction, smaller than a synapse. Electrical synapses happen faster, but they diminish quickly between neurons.
Can We Make More Neurons?
Early neuroscience pioneers believed we were born with the number of neurons we’d have for our entire life. Researchers quickly discovered that, at least in children, new neurons would be produced during development.
Continued studies through the 1980s led neuroscientists to believe that neurogenesis (the creation of new neurons) was possible; however, the theory was still hotly debated. Today, we know that neurogenesis is possible in adults in the part of the human brain known as the hippocampus.
You can support neurogenesis, too, by adopting certain lifestyle habits and eliminating others.
How Can I Support My Neurons?
Supporting your neuronal function and brain health isn’t complicated, but it requires a little effort and smart decisions. Here’s how you can do it without expending too much brain power.
Exercise stimulates your brain and helps ensure your neurons are firing and creating new neural pathways. Getting at least 30 minutes of daily exercise can help support your brain health.
Get Enough Sleep
Getting quality sleep helps support your brain function. Dendrites grow and develop while you sleep, which means getting enough shut-eye is essential for helping ensure your neurons are healthy.
Taking a Supplement
Supplements that support your brain health can be a good option in addition to rest and exercise, but sometimes it can be confusing to know which one to take.
Omega-3 has reigned supreme in terms of supplements that help boost your brain, but there’s more to omega-3 than we once realized, including some potentially unhealthy side effects.
Omega-3 at a Glance
Omega-3 is popularly referenced as an essential fatty acid, which means our bodies need it but can’t produce it on their own. Interestingly though, only one omega-3 fatty acid (ALA) is actually essential.
The other two (EPA and DHA) are not. However, most supplements contain EPA and DHA.
Omega-3 is a polyunsaturated fatty acid, which means it is liquid at room temperature and subject to peroxidation (rancidity). Just like cooking oil, it can go rancid, and it can go rancid inside your cells.
You need a lot of omega-3 to support the health benefits purported. Usually, that means taking between 2,000 and 3,000 grams of omega-3 per day.
Too much omega-3 can cause adverse side effects, like:
- Low blood pressure
- Thinning of blood
- Increased risk of bruising
- Excess blood loss if you get an injury
Not to mention, taking an omega-3 supplement (usually a fish oil capsule) almost always leaves you with a fishy aftertaste, even in so-called burpless formulas.
A better solution? C15:0 — an odd-chain, saturated fatty acid that is also essential, but without the risk of oxidation, fish breath and the other side effects associated with omega-3s.
What Is C15:0?
Discovered by scientists helping bottlenose dolphins lead healthier, longer lives, C15:0 was discovered to confer the same benefits in humans.* After a decade of research, their findings were published in Nature in 2020.
This research turned the world of fatty acids upside down. The previously-held notion that all saturated fats are bad for us, was found to not to be the case. Science now supports that some types of saturated fatty acids are not only good for our health, but essential to maintain our overall wellness.
Specifically, higher levels of odd-chain saturated fatty acids like C15:0 are associated with better heart, liver, and metabolic health. There are now calls to action to update current dietary guidelines to differentiate between good and bad saturated fats.
C15:0 vs. Omega-3
When compared head to head, C15:0 was found to be better, broader, and safer for our cells and bodies than the purest, highest performing form of omega-3:*
- Better.* When compared with the purest form of omega-3, C15:0 had 26 more benefits for your body. It also came with an unexpected bonus: C15:0 could keep bad cells from proliferating.
- Broader.*Out of 12 cell types studied, C15:0 repaired 10 of them. Omega-3 could only safely repair four.
- Safer.* C15:0 was safe for all 12 cell types studied, but omega-3 was found toxic to four of them, including lung and blood vessel cells.
A better solution for your body and a higher level of support for your cells, including your neurons? C15:0 can do that!
Fatty15: The C15:0 Solution
Because C15:0 is found in trace amounts in full-fat cow's milk, it can be hard for some of us to enough through our diet alone, and that’s where fatty15 can come in.
Fatty15 is the first and only supplement to contain FA15™. This pure, vegan-friendly version of C15:0 can help restore your circulating levels and support healthy brain function.*
You may not want to embark on a new career in neuroscience, but taking care of your neurons should still be a goal. Take an easy first step in your journey to support your brain health with fatty15.*
Eric Venn-Watson M.D.
Senior Scientist, Co-Founder
Eric is a physician, U.S. Navy veteran, and Co-founder and COO of Seraphina Therapeutics. Eric served over 25 years as a Navy and Marine Corps physician, working with the special forces community to improve their health and fitness. Seraphina Therapeutics is a health and wellness company dedicated to advancing global health through the discovery of essential fatty acids and micronutrient therapeutics.
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