Without electricity, you wouldn't be reading this article right now. And it's not because your computer wouldn't work. It's because your brain wouldn't work.
Everything we do is controlled and enabled by electrical signals running through our bodies. As we learned in intro physics, everything is made up of atoms, and atoms are made up of protons, neutrons and electrons.
Protons have a positive charge, neutrons have a neutral charge, and electrons have a negative charge. Note that the atoms themselves can carry a positive or a negative charge. How? By gaining or losing electrons. The flow of electrons between atoms is what we call electricity. Since our bodies are huge masses of atoms, we can generate electricity.
When we talk about the nervous system sending "signals" to the brain, or synapses "firing," or the brain telling our hands to contract around a door handle, what we're talking about is electricity carrying messages between point A and point B.
It's sort of like the digital cable signal carrying 1s and 0s that deliver "Law & Order” episodes. Except in our bodies, electrons aren't flowing along a wire; instead, an electrical charge is jumping from one cell to the next until it reaches its destination.
Nearly all of our cells have the ability to generate electricity. And in this article, we'll look at the role of electricity in the human body and find out how we produce it in the first place.
The starting point is simple: Right now, any cells in your body that aren't actively sending messages are slightly negatively charged. It gets interesting from there.
A Charged Discussion
Negativity is the natural resting state of your cells. It’s related to a slight imbalance between the charged atoms located inside and outside the cells.
Those atoms are known as ions — and the imbalance we just mentioned sets the stage for your electrical capacity.
Now a lot of the ions in question (not all of them, but ... a lot) are either sodium or potassium atoms. Pay attention to these two elements because they’re about to become very, very important to our discussion.
Both potassium and sodium ions carry a positive charge. And when your cell isn’t transmitting electrical signals, there’ll be a higher concentration of sodium ions outside the cell than inside the cell. On the flip side, you’ll also have more potassium ions inside the cell than outside it.
Overall, the space surrounding the cell is going to have a charge that’s relatively more positive than the space within the cell. So the charge inside this cell will be negative by comparison.
It’s a state of being that scientists call the cell’s resting membrane potential, or RMP.
Meanwhile, the charge difference on each side of the cell’s membrane will establish an electrochemical gradient between what’s inside the cell and the area immediately outside it.
OK, so when a cell is in the RMP stage, sodium and potassium ions are both present on either side of the membrane. Cool beans.
But — how do they cross the barrier? How does an ion enter or exit a cell? Well, that’s where ion channels come in. As the name implies, these are channels located in the membrane that grant passage to specific kinds of ions. (Note: In most cells, the potassium channels outnumber the sodium ones.)
Let’s take a minute to explain how they function. To quote Harvard Extension School’s official YouTube channel, the “difference in total charge inside and outside of the cell is called the membrane potential.” (The term “resting membrane potential” derives from this concept. Go figure.)
Once a cell’s membrane potential changes — once the interior total charge fluctuates in relation to the exterior total charge — that can activate some of the relevant ion channels which are embedded in the membrane.
Many channels only open up and allow the transfer of ions when the cell’s membrane potential has shifted by just the right amount. The formal name for those pathways is voltage-gated ion channels.
Each voltage-gated ion channel will only let a particular kind of ion enter or exit the cell.
Your neurons, which are specialized cells in your nervous system responsible for transmitting information across the body, contain both sodium voltage-gated ion channels and potassium voltage-gated ion channels in their membranes. Capiche?
By letting certain ions enter a neuron from the outside, these channels can alter the cell’s membrane potential. And if enough ions pass through, the cell will no longer be at its RMP.
OK, the last few paragraphs have laid a lot of groundwork. But there’s another term we really need to unpack before we go any further: action potential.
“An action potential is a rapid sequence of changes in the voltage across a membrane,” explains the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Basically, an action potential is a shockwave that comes in two phases: depolarization followed by repolarization.
Let’s say you accidentally touch a hot stove. It happens to the best of us.
Action potentials within your neurons help those vital cells communicate with each other. In this case, the neurons in your hand need to send an important message all the way to your brain about that hot, hot stovetop.
Now remember, at RMP, there will be more sodium ions outside these cells than there are inside them. But the stimuli in our “hot stove” example will provoke an opening of sodium voltage-gated ion channels along the cellular membrane of the closest neuron. Suddenly, loads of sodium ions will come pouring into the cell.
Friends, this marks the “depolarization” state. And it’s a total gamechanger. The rapid increase of sodium ions is going to make the inside of the cell more positively charged than the space surrounding it, which is the exact opposite of the situation we had at RMP.
The sodium influx causes the internal voltage to rise. But that’s only phase one. Next, the neuron enters its “repolarization” phase. With the help of sodium-potassium pumps that eject sodium ions and pull in potassium ones, the cellular membrane reinstates RMP by — once again — making the inside of our neuron more negatively charged than the outside.
Depolarization and repolarization are the one-two punch behind action potentials. Those electrical shockwaves can set off a chain reaction among the neurons, giving your brain a signal to interpret and act upon.
A Well-tuned Network
So there you have it. The secret to those electrical signals which tell your heart muscles to contract and tell your brain — by way of your eyes — that what they just saw is the word “brain.” You know, important stuff like that.
Naturally, any breakdown in your body's electrical system is a real problem.
When you get an electric shock, it interrupts the normal operation of the system, sort of like a power surge. A shock at the lightning level can cause your body to stop. The electrical process doesn't work anymore — it's fried. But that’s a story for another time.
Originally Published: Sep 22, 2008
Human Body Makes Electricity FAQs
How much electricity is in the human body?
Scientists agree that the human body, at rest, can produce around 100 watts of power on average. This is enough electricity to power up a light bulb. Some humans have the ability to output over 2,000 watts of power, for instance if sprinting.
Which disease of the nervous system causes a feeling of electric shock in the body?
Electric shock sensations are mostly associated with Lhermitte’s. It occurs because the immune system attacks the nerve fibers and destroys myelin, which slows down signals that travel between nerves. You might feel it when you flex your neck. Lhermitte’s is not life-threatening but feels inconvenient.
What happens when electricity goes through your body?
Electric currents can cause tissue damage and may trigger cardiac arrest. In many cases, humans are considered to be good conductors of electricity and provide a viable pathway for electrons to flow. If a person dies through electric shock, their death is classified as electrocution.
What is the safe voltage for a human body?
Voltages above 50 volts are dangerous but it's not the voltage that kills but the current and the amount of time you're exposed to the voltage. People have died from voltages as low as 42 volts.
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