What Do Dendrites Do?

dendrites Credit: IONclad/CC-BY 2.0

Dendrites are a part of the central nervous system that receive input from nerve cells, which are sometimes called. Multiple fibers called dendrites extend in a branchlike formation from the cell body of a neuron. When the postsynaptic terminals, or receptors, at the end of a dendrite receive neurotransmitters released by other neurons, an electric signal is transmitted through the dendrite to the cell body of the neuron.

Dendrites receive nervous system signals through synapses, which form the connections between neurons where the axon terminal of one nerve cell ends near the dendrites of another nerve cell. Nerve cells do not physically touch each other. Instead, they communicate through the use of neurotransmitters that travel across the space called the synaptic cleft between the cells. An electrical signal travels down one neuron's axon and triggers the release of chemical compounds called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters move across the synaptic cleft and connect to the receptors on the other nerve cell. This triggers an electrical impulse that then travels from the dendrites to the cell body.

The typical neuron has thousands of dendrites, but it is possible for a nerve cell to have only one dendrite. Dendrites are relatively short, and they have spines that provide more surface area for other neurons to synapse with. Their branch-like formation inspired the name "dendrite," which means "tree" in Greek.