I have read that we might be yawning to cool our brains down, so then a thought occurred to me. If we need to cool down our brain, then our brain but heat up for some reason. The only reason I could see would be the action potential causing some sort of temperature increase. My query is how exactly would a neuron heat up, if it does do so in the first place?


While it is possible that action potentials themselves result in waste heat, there are other processes within the neuron likely to contribute much more to energy lost as heat. The action potential itself uses energy that's been stored in chemical and electrical gradients that are the result of numerous sodium-potassium pumps which require the energy in ATP. There would be some loss of energy in the operation of these pumps.

But far more heat is likely generated by the mitochondria within the neurons. These are the structures that convert most of the energy in the breakdown products of carbohydrates and fats into the ATP the Na-K pumps require. Generous estimates put the efficiency of this production at roughly 50%. That means about half the energy from the food-stuffs used to create the ATP is lost as heat.

  • $\begingroup$ How much heat can a neuron waste? Is it enough to effect its function? $\endgroup$ – Phi Oct 12 '16 at 0:53
  • $\begingroup$ "Waste heat" simply means energy that escapes during a transfer of energy from one form to another. We call the roughly 50% of the energy in carbohydrates that can't be converted into ATP waste heat because it doesn't end up in the desired form of ATP. But that "waste heat" is what mammal's bodies uses to maintain a high body temperature enabling us to be more active than, say, reptiles in colder environments. The body has many mechanisms to dispel heat if it begins to get too hot, think sweating for example. Blood helps carry heat from the brain to where sweat can occur. $\endgroup$ – bpedit Oct 12 '16 at 1:52

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