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Question Video: Describing the Refractory Period Biology

After an action potential, there is a short period of time when another action potential cannot be generated. What is this period of time called?

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Video Transcript

After an action potential, there is a short period of time when another action potential cannot be generated. What is this period of time called?

You may recall that if a neuron, like the one shown in this diagram, receives a sufficiently strong stimulus, a nerve impulse, which is also known as an action potential, will be generated. This action potential is conducted along the length of the axon. In a mammalian axon, an average action potential lasts for between 0.5 and one milliseconds. If another stimulus is given during this time, it will not generate another action potential in the neuron. This is because the membrane potential, the difference in charge between the neuron cytoplasm and the extracellular space, changes during an action potential. And it takes time for the neuron to return to its resting state before another action potential can be generated.

If you’ve ever been to the gym, you probably had to stop and recover between exercises. This is exactly what neurons do between action potentials. The time taken for a neuron to recover before another action potential can be generated is called the refractory period. And in mammals, it’s usually between 0.5 and one milliseconds in duration.

The refractory period is important because it ensures that each action potential is a discrete event. In other words, it makes sure they don’t all merge into one another. It also means that action potentials can only travel in one direction. This is essential for the successful and efficient transmission of nerve impulses along neurons.

We have therefore determined that the short period of time following an action potential when another action potential cannot be generated is called the refractory period.

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