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I was under the impression the only signals neurons send using changes in membrane potential are action potentials. But my biology professor showed us diagrams of graded potentials and action potentials and to me they looked very similar.

What is the difference between a graded potential and an action potential?

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    $\begingroup$ have you tried googling? wiki has a page on that $\endgroup$ – aaaaaa Jul 17 '15 at 5:25
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Short answer
An action potential is a binary all-or-nothing event, while a graded potential is an analog signal.

Background
Action potentials, once initiated, are basically all-or-nothing events. Amplitudes may admittedly be variable, but basically it is the spike rate that is relevant to the neural code (Gerstner et al., 1997).

In contrast, graded potentials code information mainly by amplitude. A notable example of the significance of graded potentials is the function of the inner hair cells in the cochlea (the inner ear). The mechanoreceptors on the hair cells open when deflected in one direction, while they close in the other. This is important, as that property depolarizes the cell on one phase of an input sinusoid, while it hyperpolarizes the cell in the subsequent phase. Also, stronger (louder) input increases the response, while softer stimulu generate less response (Fig. 1). In the auditory nerve this graded potential is translated into spike rates (Fig. 2). Basically the hair-cell and auditory nerve system is an analogue-to-digital converter.

CM
Fig. 1. Cochlear microphonic: a graded potential that increases amplitude with increasing loudness. Source: Juaristi & Martínez-Conde, 2014

CM versus spike rate
Fig. 2. In the auditory nerve amplitude is coded as action potential (spike) rates, low frequencies as burst-repetition rate. Source: NY University

References
- Gerstner et al., PNAS (1997); 94(24): 12740–1
- Juaristi & Martínez-Conde, Acta Otorrinolaringol Española (2014); 65(04)

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    $\begingroup$ This is a really nice answer. I have never understood this concept this well. It goes beyond a surface description and actually identifies the specific mathematical/code property that makes the two distinct. Really cool. $\endgroup$ – Stan Shunpike Jul 27 '15 at 23:39
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    $\begingroup$ @StanShunpike - thanks for your nice feedback. I had to ponder on this one for a few days before answering :) I'm glad the answer was helpful. Thanks for accepting too. Late answers often don't get a lot of upvotes :) $\endgroup$ – AliceD Jul 28 '15 at 0:21
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Graded potential

Graded potentials are initiated by a stimulus that vary in magnitude depending on the strength of the stimulus. (The stronger the stimulus the more gated channels open causing larger depolarisation). Graded potentials occur in dendrites, cell bodies and sensory receptors. Graded potentials dissipate with distance from stimulus.

Action Potential

On the other hand, action potentials occur when graded potentials reach the axon hillock at a certain level of depolarisation (around -55mV). This opens the activation gate letting sodium flood into the membrane. This is an "all or nothing" event, once the threshold triggers the membrane depolarises quickly to around +30mV.

I could just save you time and show you this table:

Comparison of Graded Potentials and Action Potentials (2011 Pearson Education)

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  • $\begingroup$ What was the source of the table? I'd like to reference this for future study. $\endgroup$ – 86BCP2432T Oct 17 '16 at 2:25

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