I really wonder how ions are transported into the brain and the neurons for creating electrical potentials - how do ions get from our digestive system to the neurons? Or are the ions just freely released into the brain like hormones? Or are they transmitted during neural signalling somehow (via neurotransmitters maybe)?

  • $\begingroup$ There are voltage-gated ion channels in the cell's plasma membrane that controls the release of ions. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Action_potential $\endgroup$
    – Ro Siv
    Aug 29 '15 at 14:03
  • $\begingroup$ I voted to close because the title asks for a cellular/molecular approached answer pitched to neurons, the body text asks for a tissue-level answer. It's unclear what you are after. Feel free to edit. It can be an interesting question. $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Aug 29 '15 at 21:03

Short answer
The sodium-potassium pump in the epithelial cells lining the brain capillaries pumps Na+ and K+ into the brain.

The blood-brain-barrier is formed by the endothelial cells lining the capillaries in the brain. Not many compounds can pass this lining, especially not when they are hydrophilic, such as charged metal ions. However, as you rightfully state, somehow these metal ions, and especially Na+ and K+ need to get access to the brain because they are crucial for membrane potentials and action potentials, and hence for neuronal survival and function. And indeed they can, albeit the exchange between blood plasma and brain is slow compared with other tissues.

Intravenously administered K+, for example, exchanges with muscle K+ in 1 hr, but K+ exchange in brain is only half completed in 24 to 36 hr. Na+ exchange is somewhat faster, with half-exchange into brain occurring in 3 to 8 hr. Despite its relatively slow entry into the brain, Na+ exchange across the blood—brain barrier appears to occur by mediated transport. This occurs, in part, through brain capillary Na+,K+-ATPase (the sodium-potassium pump). The Na+,K+-ATPase in the brain also may mediate removal of interstitial fluid K+ from the brain and thereby aid in brain K+ homeostasis.

- Laterra et al. In: Siegel et al. eds. Basic Neurochemistry: Molecular, Cellular and Medical Aspects. 6th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott-Raven; 1999


The cells/neurons themselves have Na+ and K+ channels in their cell membranes that allow for passive movement of these ions between the outside and inside of the cell. If you're wondering how the gradient gets established in the first place, simply put, these channels are built to open/close at the right amounts in their environments. Additionally, the cell uses a Na/K ATP-ase pumps in the cell membrane, which uses the chemical potential energy of ATP, to help regulate and establish that gradient.

  • $\begingroup$ So they all are pumped into our brains while we are in the uterus? I meant more like how do the neurons get it (the way of the ions from our digestive system to neurons) than how do they get into the correct place in the neuron. $\endgroup$
    – Probably
    Aug 29 '15 at 18:44
  • $\begingroup$ We absorb ions through our GI tract. Those ions are then in the blood. The blood is separated from the brain by the blood-brain barrier, but the endothelial cells can regulate the flow of the necessary ions into the brain, specifically to the cerebral spinal fluid, which bathes the central nervous system with all its neurons. $\endgroup$
    – Biomed_guy
    Aug 29 '15 at 22:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Biomed_guy And how does the ATP pump work? $\endgroup$
    – Probably
    Aug 30 '15 at 9:31

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