How would you explain the basic structures and functions of neurons and synapses in the brain to your little brother or sister? Consider using analogies and other examples so that he or she can easily comprehend the information.
The brain is made of approximately 100 billion nerve cells called neurons. Neurons have the amazing ability to gather and transmit electrochemical signals. Neurons have the same makeup as other cells with the exception of the electrochemical which lets the transmit signals over long distances and send messages to each other. The neuron are like brains that signal to other cells, or a computer that controls things (printer, fax, phone, and camera). Neurons have three basic parts; the cell body, axon, and dendrites. The cell body or soma which is the main part of the neuron and if the cell body dies, the neuron dies as well. The axon is long and cable like and carries the electrochemical messages. The dendrites or nerve endings are branchlike projections of the cell and make connections to other cells which allow the neurons to communicate with other cells or perceive the environment. Synapses are structure that permits a neuron to pass an electrical or chemical signals to other cells. Synapses are a way for the neurons to communicate. Synapses are the means by which neurons pass signals to individual target cells. Synapses are like the wires from the computer that run to the printer, fax, phone, and camera.
Imagine you are playing a game of telephone with your friends. You whisper a message in your friends ear and then she turns to the next person and whispers it into their ear. Imagine that the last person to receive the message is the brain. And the rest of you and your friends are neurons who carry the message to the brain. There are many different kinds of neurons, just like there are many different kinds of telephones. There are iphones, and androids, and landlines, and blackberries. In the same way, there are sensory neurons- those tell the brain about what they feel or smell or taste or see. Motor neurons tell your brain to move your muscles so you can run and jump. Communication neurons help your brain carry messages from one side of it to the other. Computation neurons help your decide how to respond to things. Neurons have lots of parts to them, just like how your phone has parts to it. The cell body is like the otter box that covers your phone. The axon is a long chord like a cellphone charger and it carries the message inside of it. The dendrites are like the speaker on your phone that helps the message be heard by the person next to you. The synapse is how the neurons are able to pass on the messages to each one of your individual friends.
Neuron are cells that send signals to other neurons but they need the synapse to connect them. This process is done over and over again to send signals to different places in the brain. This is kind of like watching TV. The TV is the brain that received the signals to watch what you want but you need the remote the neurons to send the TV messages. Before the neuron the remote can press another button to send the next neuron a signal. It has to go through the receiver box that allows the remote to connect to the TV. So it’s a whole process before the brain can get the signal to put on your favorite show. You first have to use the remote to turn on the TV but the receiver box has to get that signal first for you to press the next button to then change the channel like a signal that then goes back to the receiver box then the TV that shows your show. So without the remote or the receiver you wouldn’t be able to watch the TV because nothing would be on. The TV needs the remote signal to connect to the receiver signal to connect to the TV.
The parts of our brain need to talk to each other and also to other parts of our body. All of the parts of our brain need to be able to talk to each other so that are body does what it is supposed to do. For instants our hearts need to remember to beat and our lungs need to remember to breath. Also if our hands touch something that is hot we do not know that it is hot until are brain knows it is and then it tells us. It is just like when your teacher tells you how to do your math assignment, you do know know how to do it until she tells you. These things in our brains that pass the word along to each other is known as synapses. Think of them like people making telephone calls so that your body knows how to work. Another thing that these little synapse help us all do is to remember things. In order for us to remember things two pathways that are like little roads are directly linked to each other must be active at the same time this is how things are put into our brain forever. These synapese in our brains are very important, they help us live and helps us remember.
If I had to try and explain this to a little child, I think I would use the toy, jack-in-the-box, for reference. The jack-in-the-box needs some sort of action to fire the jack to jump out of the box, without it, he would sit in there forever. The neurons need some sort of chemical activity to start the transmitting of messages from one to the next. I would start with the structure of the neurons as compared to the toy. The neuron would be compared to the jack-in-the-box as a whole toy. The membrane holding back the action potential would be the top of the toy, and the dendrites and axons carrying the messages would represent the crank to wind the toy. The molecules forming in the synapses would represent an arm coming to crank the toy. The resulting charges building to cause an action potential could represent the arm cranking the toy to cause the jack to jump out of the box. Now, in resting potential, the jack sits in the box until the cranking of the arm to discharge him from the box; the nucleus sits at a neutral charge awaiting the arrival of the molecules to create IPSPs or the EPSPs to fire the neuron. Once the neuron is moved by the charges of the neurotransmitters, comparable to the cranking of the toys arm, the neuron will fire and cause an action potential to be created, then moving on down the line. The jack-in-the-box builds pressure as the arm cranks the toy, causing the jack to jump rapidly out of the box. (Unfortunately, my example cannot cause a chain reaction like the neurons continue on, but it can explain somewhat on the processes that lie within the single neurons). Then, when the original neuron fires, the channels close, to regain its resting potential to wait to be fired again. The same with the jack-in-the-box, once he jumps out, he can be pushed back in and the top closed, awaiting the process to be fired out again.
From my experiences with my son and teaching my preschool Sunday School class, I know that by using comparisons of something that they are experienced with can help them understand, from their viewpoint, the basics behind more complex information. Within my example, it may not fully explain all the complexities behind neurons, but it may help them get a basic understanding of how messages are fired from one neuron to the next.
I would also tell them that our body consists of billions of cells that creates our skin, brain, organs,muscles and numerous parts of our body. The neurons, we can say are the little communicators (cells) that will deliver the messages to tell your body what to do, such as if you want to raise your arm or something, then our brain would go head and send a telephone message to your arm. Let’s pretend that this wall is your brain, and the cord coming out of it is an axon. Our brain would send an electric signal in the axon (the cord) which is basically named a dendrite, and this would be the antenna in this case, on the telephone attached to the wall here. Then the cell in the muscle of your arm, which is this wireless hand phone, gets the electrical and chemical message through space, which is called a synapse, to its antenna, which is a beginning of another axon, or cord, and your arm goes up. I would explain that the brain is the main electrical source that controls everything, because without the electricity nothing else would work, the little messengers (cells) would not know where to go or what to tell the other body parts what to do. But I would definitely draw this demonstration out so the child would get a clearer picture.