Chemical synapses are specialized junctions that are used for communication between neurons, neurons and muscle or gland cells. The synapse involves a presynaptic neuron and a postsynaptic neuron, muscle cell or glad cell. The pre and the postsynaptic cell are separated by a gap (space) of 20 to 40 nm called the synaptic cleft. The signals pass in a single direction from the presynaptic to postsynaptic neuron (cell). The presynaptic neuron communicates via the release of neurotransmitter which bind the receptors on the postsynaptic cell. The process is initiated when an action potential invades the terminal membrane of the presynaptic neuron.
Action potentials occur in electrically excitable cells such as neurons and muscles and endocrine cells. They are initiated by the transient opening of voltage dependent sodium channels, causing a rapid, large depolarization of membrane potentials that spread along the axon membrane.
When action potentials arrive at the synaptic terminals, depolarization in membrane potential leads to the opening of voltage gated calcium channels located on the presynaptic membrane. The external Ca2+ concentration is approximately 10-3 M while the internal Ca2+ concentration is approximately 10-7 M. Opening of calcium channels causes a rapid influx of Ca2+ into the presynaptic terminal. The elevated presynaptic Ca2+ concentration allows synaptic vesicles to fuse with the plasma membrane of the presynaptic neuron and release their contents, neurotransmitters, into the synaptic cleft. These diffuse across the synaptic cleft and bind to specific receptors on the membrane of the postsynaptic cells. Activation of postsynaptic receptors upon neurotransmitter binding can lead to a multitude of effects in the postsynaptic cell, such as changing the membrane potential and excitability, and triggering intracellular signaling cascades.