MSD Manual

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Typical Structure of a Nerve Cell
Typical Structure of a Nerve Cell
Typical Structure of a Nerve Cell

A nerve cell (neuron) consists of a large cell body and nerve fibers—one elongated extension (axon) for sending impulses and usually many branches (dendrites) for receiving impulses.

Each large axon is surrounded by oligodendrocytes in the brain and spinal cord and by Schwann cells in the peripheral nervous system. The membranes of these cells consist of a fat (lipoprotein) called myelin. The membranes are wrapped tightly around the axon, forming a multilayered sheath. This myelin sheath resembles insulation, such as that around an electrical wire. Nerve impulses travel much faster in nerves with a myelin sheath than in those without one.

If the myelin sheath of a nerve is damaged, nerve transmission slows or stops. The myelin sheath may be damaged by various conditions that damage the brain or peripheral nerves including

  • Multiple sclerosis

  • Certain types of strokes

  • Certain autoimmune disorders (such as Guillain-Barré syndrome)

  • Certain infections

  • Drugs and toxins

  • Certain hereditary disorders