When an action potential is transmitted along the axon, the membrane reaches its depolarized state by opening Na+ channels. Both K+ (potassium) and Na+ (sodium) are now on both sides with close to equal concentration-ratios. It is the next step that confuses me: the K+ rushing out of the cell, thus repolarizing the membrane.

Wouldn't the two substances balance themselves out according to the Electric-/Substance-Concentration-Gradient once the Na+/K+ channels are open? I don't understand where that energy comes from, the energy that not only mediates polarization, but also the subsequent re-polarization.

  • $\begingroup$ I edited the question to improve clarity. If the current question does not reflect your original question anymore feel free to roll back $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Apr 16, 2015 at 5:12
  • $\begingroup$ As a short answer: K+ is high in the cell, so it rushes out along its concentration gradient $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Apr 16, 2015 at 5:14

1 Answer 1


Three facts:

  1. The K+ ions are heavily concentrated on the inside while the Na+ ions are heavily concentrated on the outside

  2. The Na+/K+ ion pump is unidirectional. It can only pump K+ ions inside the cell while expelling the Na+ ions.

  3. Finally only the Na+/K+ ion pumps can restore the ionic equilibrium.

ionic concentration inside neurons

The full scene:

  1. Once the threshold is reached the Na+ voltage gated channels open up. So Na+ ions rush in, causing depolarisation.

  2. Then the Na+ channels close while the K+ channels open. This causes rushing of K+ ions outside, thus slowly reducing the potential difference starting the process of repolarisation

  3. Now the Na+/K+ ion pumps are geared up as the extracellular concentration of K+ and intracellular concentration of Na+ ions are high (which is the ideal environment for the pump to work.

enter image description here


Without the high extracellular concentration of the K+ ions the pump can't function any faster than the basal rate even though the intracellular concentration of Na+ ions exceed the normal value by many times. High concentration of K+ ions in the extracellular environment is essential for restoration of the ionic equilibrium.


I meant unidirectional in the sense that when actively pumping sodium is always pushed out while potassium is always pushed in.

Thanks to AliceD for pointing out that when the gradient is reversed, the pump synthesizes ATP due to forced movement of ions in the opposite direction.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Correction - Na,K-ATPase is not unidirectional - it is an enzyme, which per definition means it establishes a certain equilibrium. In effect, Na,K-ATPase is an ATP synthase under the correct conditions, such as reversed Na/K gradient: link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF00592639 $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Apr 16, 2015 at 11:04
  • $\begingroup$ @AliceD I meant unidirectional in its pumping action. Though synthesizing ATP when gradient is reversed is new to me! Thanks for that! $\endgroup$
    – One Face
    Apr 16, 2015 at 14:57
  • $\begingroup$ @OneFace Reverse behavior takes many interesting forms. ATP synthase in mitochondria can become proton pumps, for example. $\endgroup$
    – forest
    Mar 22, 2018 at 21:05

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