Sara Bellum
August 3 2010

You may remember hearing something about neurons in biology, but what about today’s word of the day: axon?

Neurons are nerve cells in the brain that communicate with each other 24/7 to control everything we do, think, and feel. The axon is the long, tunnel-like part of the neuron (see picture) that steers messages from the cell to other nerve cells or body tissues, such as muscles.

Since the axon’s only job is to transmit messages from point A to point B, it can focus on doing it fast. For this reason, many axons are lined with a fatty material called myelin, which helps the message glide through the axon quickly. Prolonged drug use can damage the axon or the myelin, causing noticeable changes in a person’s behavior over time.

For example, scientists have discovered that abusing certain drugs on a long-term basis—like inhaling fumes or markers—can eat away at myelin. Without its protective myelin lining, the axon itself is more vulnerable to harm. An axon that is damaged or is missing myelin cannot transmit messages as well to other nerve cells, if at all. For someone with damaged axons, this can mean muscle spasms, tremors or difficulty with basic motor skills, like walking, bending, or talking.

More info is available on the NIDA for Teens’ Web site about axons and their role in the brain’s communication system, as well as inhalants and their effects on the body.

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