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Biology of Perceptual Systems by Edward Carterette (Eds.)

By Edward Carterette (Eds.)

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THE PROBLEM IN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE The problem is to find out how the nervous system works. But what do we mean by this? We know that it is (say) a highly ordered collection of chemicals but this only tells us what it is made of. We know that behavior is highly organized, as ethology and experimental psychology describe, but that only tells us what the nervous system is capable of (see Fig. 1). In fact there are two ways of satisfying our thirst for mechanism: one is to study a whole system, produce a set of relationships between hypothetical components, arrange them to fit the performance that we can observe, and wm Sensory cells Pattern abstraction Central integration Pattern output motor cells ^ muscles FIG.

3. Semischematic representation of synaptic contacts. A: Pyramidal neuron soma and proximal dendrites encrusted with axon terminals. B: Synapse made by axon terminals on a segment of soma membrane. C: Cross section through axon terminal containing mitochondria and synaptic vesicles, and showing the presynaptic membrane, postsynaptic membrane, and the synaptic cleft. neuron, but may make many synaptic contacts with it, up to perhaps hundreds in special cases. The available quantitative information indicates that in many instances one axon contributes an average of about two synapses to a cell; in a special case, one particular type of axon (the climbing fiber) makes more than 250 synaptic contacts with a single Purkinje cell in the cerebellar cortex.

When an action potential invades the terminal, the probability per unit time of quantum release rises and falls rapidly over perhaps a 200 /xsec time span. Current evidence indicates that the typical average quantum content of a PSP, that is, the average number of transmitter units released by one nerve impulse propagating to the terminal or terminals on a particular cell, ranges between one and ten; because the underlying release process is random, the standard deviation of the number of quanta released per nerve impulse arriving at a cell is thus between about one and three, so a considerable fluctuation occurs in the effectiveness of the nerve impulse in releasing a transmitter.

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