My question is purely theoretical and my main aim is to find out the maximum speed that a nerve signal can travel within a nervous system and and whether this speed represents the physical limit of how fast a nerve signal can travel. This could also extend to designs not seen in nature and possible artificially designed nerves i.e. synthetic biology. Apologies for an awkward question!! Any input is welcome!!


1 Answer 1


For some background on saltatory conduction: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saltatory_conduction

I feel that a "perfectly insulated" neuron couldn't actually allow the signal to travel. Insulation (which, in neurons, is basically layers of fat wrapped around axons so ions cannot pass) allows the electrical signal to move further along axons (less ionic leakage) and faster (due to decreased membrane capacitance-it takes less charge movement to generate the same potential difference across the membrane; see this question: How is membrane capacitance related to the increased speed of saltatory conduction?)

Also, you should check out wikipedia's page on cable theory of neurons: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cable_theory

This is why myelination increases conduction speed, as you may or may not already know. The increased length of the ionic signal (due to the inhibited leakage) allows voltage-gated ion channels which are further away to be activated as a result of any given local membrane depolarization. This all happens faster due to the lower capacitance.

However, the only way the action potential can actually "travel" at all is due to the sequential activation of voltage-gated ion channels along the axon. This is the case in both myelinated and unmyelinated axons, it's just that the spacing is greater when myelinated. In the insulated, fat-wrapped regions of axonal membrane, there are no ion channels, voltage-gated or otherwise. If there were, the layers of fat would not allow ions to pass through anyway at this point. Thus, the "perfectly insulated" axon could never actually propagate a signal, because the signal still requires the chain reaction of voltage-gated ion channel activation and sodium influx at some point. Myelinated conduction is faster because the spacing is increased, but increasing the spacing to infinity would not allow the action potential to be passed on.

I suspect that there is a certain threshold in the extent of myelination where the spacing between nodes of Ranvier becomes to great to have effective propagation of action potentials. I wouldn't be surprised if evolution has resulted i a relatively optimal spacing of nodes. I suppose a better question might be: what is the speed of conduction between nodes?

I suppose it would be possible to send current through a perfectly insulated axon and potentially activate a voltage gated calcium channel at the terminal. However, This would be different than an action potential and would be effectively reducing the neuron to an electrical wire. Sometimes it's better to keep things simple.

  • $\begingroup$ I think that by "perfectly insulated," the OP probably meant "optimally insulated," as in "what is the physical limit of how fast an electrical signal can travel through an axon with the best possible insulation?" (@MICHAEL TAYLOR, correct me if I misinterpreted your question.) $\endgroup$
    – CDB
    Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 2:18
  • $\begingroup$ OK should I delete this? $\endgroup$
    – Jory
    Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 2:44
  • $\begingroup$ No. You have a lot of good information here, I just don't think it's what the OP is looking for. You could just edit it. But wait for the OP to clarify his question before you change anything, it could be exactly what he wanted. $\endgroup$
    – CDB
    Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 2:57
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your answer Jory and your comments @CDB. Your answer is what I was looking for! Its really thorough and informative and actually clarifies my chain of thought in regards to nerve conduction and its properties and limitations. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 6, 2016 at 18:12

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