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Electric synapses are synapses that do not process information but simply foward one action potential from one neuron to the next. There are no neurotransmitters, no inhibitory and exitatory postsynaptic potentials that would cause different responses in the post-synapse.

So, I'm wondering: What are the biological advantages over just one long axon? My research has only told me the advantages over "normal" synapses (speed), but I couldn't find any advantage over just using one longer neuron which, I suppose, would be even faster.

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  • $\begingroup$ I can't answer this but just to consider: firstly, this may be a way to overcome the limit of length of an individual cell before intracellular transport of proteins and organelles becomes impracticable. Aside from this, the difference between one long neuron and two connected ones is that they are separated by a membrane and can have different interiors. This means different internal cell states e.g. signalling molecules, ion concentrations,... $\endgroup$ – Armatus May 26 '14 at 16:12
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Having just read this article (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK11164/) there are several advantages/functional reasons that seem apparent and important in having electrical synapses with gap junctions compared to just a very long neuron.

a) signals in electrical synapse can be bidirectional. b) electrical synapse synchronize electrical activity among populations of neurons. c) The large pores in gap junctions allows passage of ATP and other important intracellular metabolites, such as second messengers between neurons.

I'm sure there are plenty of other reasons but these should provide a better picture in terms of the functional significance of having electric synapses.

Hope this helps!

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  • $\begingroup$ Also. If there is one long neuron then the nucleus will have difficulty coping up with the maintenance of the cell $\endgroup$ – WYSIWYG May 26 '14 at 18:19
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The advantage I have heard of is synchronization, as can be found in the Wikipedia article on electrical synapses:

The relative speed of electrical synapses also allows for many neurons to fire synchronously.

Synchronization in turn has many advantages and is supposed to play roles in different contexts, e.g. in binding.

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  • $\begingroup$ Synchronisation through electrical synapses, which is covered by the previous answer, is much faster and stereotyped compared to gamma synchronization hypothesized to underlie feature binding. $\endgroup$ – vkehayas Oct 10 '17 at 14:29
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, I did oversee b). Should I delete my answer or just the hint on binding? $\endgroup$ – Hans-Peter Stricker Oct 10 '17 at 14:31
  • $\begingroup$ @vkehayas: You mean the maximal firing rate of neurons (1000Hz) compared to the 40Hz of gamma oscillations? $\endgroup$ – Hans-Peter Stricker Oct 12 '17 at 10:36
  • $\begingroup$ Correct. That said, gap junctions may not be responsible for the characteristic frequency of the oscillation, but they could increase the level of synchrony in the population (ac.els-cdn.com/S0896627304000431/…), so there is a point to be made there. $\endgroup$ – vkehayas Oct 12 '17 at 13:12
  • $\begingroup$ This reassures me, i.e. I am not on a totally misleading track. (General increasing the general level of synchrony is something.) This is what I found today: Neuronal synchrony measures (scholarpedia.org/article/Neuronal_synchrony_measures) $\endgroup$ – Hans-Peter Stricker Oct 12 '17 at 13:51

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