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5 Ways to Make Structure and Function of Neurons Interesting for Students

Sana Shujat
Anatomy & Physiology
Higher Education
Teaching with Labster

Neurons (nerve cells) act as the mail carrier of the nervous system and are responsible for transferring information between nerve cells, gland cells, and muscles—the brain functions due to the structural and functional aspects of interconnected neurons. The total number of neurons varies between species; however, the basic structure remains the same. 

The basic structure of most neurons consists of a cell body, axon, and dendrites. The cell body is filled with a nucleus and cytoplasm. The axons and dendrites are the extensions of the cell body, each specific in its architecture and action. The point of contact between two neurons where they communicate is called the synapse. 

The messages between neurons are sent or received as electrical impulses. The range of these electrical impulses varies from a few centimeters to more than one meter in length. The axons are wrapped in the myelin sheath, accelerating the signal transmission along the axon. The anatomy and physiology of neurons get complicated as we unravel more details. It makes it an overwhelming and challenging experience for educators and students. 

At Labster, we aim to make this topic less daunting and more approachable for students. But first, let’s discuss three reasons why it could be a tricky subject in the first place. Continue reading to discover interesting strategies to help you with more efficient lesson planning and lecture delivery. 

Why are the anatomy and physiology of neurons tricky?

The intricacies involved in the structure and function of neurons make it a rather taxing experience. Let's discuss and evaluate the reasons that make it a tricky topic.

1. It's abstract

Neurons are microscopic components yet an essential aspect of the nervous system. Students cannot feel or see the neurons sending messages with their naked eye. In fact, we need specialized instruments to see the neurons in action. It’s a fascinating experience to watch the interconnected network of neurons; however, it remains hard to believe that chemicals/ions are involved in transmitting nerve impulses. 

2. Different types of neurons - it’s complicated

Three types of neurons are differentiated based on shape, size, location, and function in the body. These intricacies make the topic lengthy and challenging to comprehend for some students. The sensory neurons have a cell body in the middle with dendrites at both ends connected by a long axon. On the other hand, the motor neurons have a long axon in the middle with dendrites on one end and a cell body on the other. The role of four types of neurons are as follows:

Sensory neurons deliver signals from outside the body to the glands, skin, and muscles, leading to the central nervous system. 

Motor neurons work opposite to the sensory neurons as it carries signals from the central nervous system to the outer body parts. 

Receptor neurons efficiently detect stimuli like light, sound, and touch and convert them into electrochemical energy transferred to the CNS by sensory neurons. 

Interneurons have a relatively simple function: sending messages from one nerve cell to another. 

functional types of neurons

3. It’s content-heavy

The junction of two neurons is where chemical and electrical changes occur, primarily responsible for sending messages between the body and the brain. This point of contact is known as a synapse, where chemicals (neurotransmitters) and ions are involved and regulate the path of electrical impulses. The different types of neurotransmitters have dedicated roles, making learning about neurons a content-heavy and tricky topic.  

5 ways to make the anatomy and physiology of neurons a more approachable topic for students

There are many ways to make learning about neurons an interesting and fun experience. Here we will discuss the top five practical solutions educators could take advantage of in their lessons. The conventional ways of learning seem less effective in boosting students’ productivity. Interactive strategies like those discussed below have shown proven positive results. 

1. Take advantage of activity-based learning

Activities are a great way to keep students engaged in the classroom. There are many easy and manageable classroom activities that you could imply while discussing neurons. 

Printables

You could never go wrong with printables as they work at every level of education. However, make sure that worksheets are related according to the grade you teach. Find some templates of unlabelled diagrams of neurons (with detailed anatomy). Remember! Give students enough time for preparation before introducing the activity. It is usually a good idea to provide a range of options for labeling, especially if you schedule this activity on the same day as the lecture. 

3D Model

One way to make such topics relatable for students is through 3D models. Encourage students to create models themselves as a group activity. Such hands-on activity makes remembering and retaining memory easier for a longer time. 

2. Share exciting facts about neurons

The information in textbooks might feel daunting at times. Researching some fun facts about the topic will help educators make things flawless for students. Here are some of the exciting facts about neurons that you could use during your lessons. Such related but awe-inspiring knowledge makes students intrigued to learn more about the topic. 

  • Some mammals might have 100 million neurons, while others have as much as 100 billion.

  • The length of the primary afferent axon in the giraffe is 15 feet - from neck to toe

  • The number of neurons is comparable with the number of stars in the galaxy. 

  • The density of the brain increases with new neural connections.

  • Neurons don’t have the property of dividing/repairing or regenerating; thus, neural damage is permanent. 

  • In humans, we begin to lose neurons around the age of 20. By the age of 75, one-tenth of our neurons have died.

  • The human brain can produce around 23 watts of electricity (enough to power a lightbulb).

3. Lighten up the mood with some fun riddles and jokes

Traditional methods of learning are straightforward and to the point. However, today's youth prefers to do and learn things in clever ways. As a result, educators are constantly on the lookout for novel concepts that are appropriate for younger audiences.  You can never go wrong with amusing riddles and jokes since they help students understand crucial scientific topics quickly. The following are some brainy jokes and puzzles about neurons:

  • What continues to work even after it is fired?
    A neuron.
    Explanation: The electrical impulses travel between nerve cells/muscle/tissues when a neuron is fired. The neuron gets fired repeatedly for a successive generation of electrical current - working even when fired.

  • What did the Hollywood film director remark after completing a film about myelin?
    That’s a wrap.
    Explanation: The myelin acts as an outer coating or wraps around the axon. It helps in faster signal transmission. 

  • Do you know why the neuron got sent to the principal’s office?
    It’s hard for him to control his impulses.
    Explanation: Electrical impulses are a way of communication for neurons. Inhibitory control is one of the core executive functions; therefore, those sent to the principal office are most likely to have no control over impulse. 

4. Make it stick with wordplay

Hands-on activities, fun facts, etc., help students understand scientific concepts but students also need to memorize the problematic scientific terms. Mnemonic helps make things easier on memory by making a story, chain, or words/alphabets. Highlighting the mnemonics about neurons will aid students in doing well in exams and getting better grades. 

  • The parts of the structure of neurons could be made easy using this catchy phrase “Damn! Skinner Ate Mice?? Not Very Smart”
    Dendrite, Soma, Axon, Myelin Sheath, Nodes of Ranvier, Synaptic Vesicles, Synapse

  • Most commonly discussed neurotransmitters - DASE: Dopamine Acetylcholine Serotonin Endorphins

5. Use virtual lab simulations

A virtual laboratory simulation is a great way to teach muscle tissue: structure and function. At Labster, we're dedicated to delivering fully interactive advanced laboratory simulations that utilize gamification elements like storytelling and scoring systems inside an immersive and engaging 3D universe.

Check out Labster's simulations for Microanatomy of a Neuron: Build your own neurons! Virtual Lab. In this simulation, you’ll get to follow the path of the electric impulse and how it is propagated. You’ll see how the action potential influences the generation of the signal and which cells are more likely to have electric or chemical synapses. You will also learn about neurotransmitters' importance and mode of action.

Microanatomy of a neuron GIF

Please take a look at the following snippets taken from the Labster simulations or get in touch to find out how you can start using virtual labs with your students.

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