Bengaluru Dec 13, 2018, (Research Matters):
“Dude! Look at madam! She’s so into her work that she’s gonna spill her coffee!”
“Haha, you are on, my friend. As busy as she is, she excels in multitasking. Your wallet is going to miss the sweet hundred bucks note”
“Look at you, all acting pro in betting. I’ll take that bet!”
Charu’s eyes rarely wavered away from the huge white screen in the centre of the lounge. It showed ‘-70 mV’, in black, against a white background, increasing or decreasing by one, regularly. She sat on the edge of the chair, her legs criss crossed, her back arched forward towards the screen and her hands gripping a coffee cup rather precariously. She did not want to miss anything today.
Her office, known as ‘The Hillock’, was pretty big by normal standards with a spacious lounge in the center and three different sections - Natrium, Kalium and Integrator Console - in the corners. Each of these sections have a dedicated set of personnel working towards the assigned goal of that section. The office, in general, deals with information integration and initiation. The name I-I-I doesn’t sound very...well it doesn’t sound at all, so the name Hillock! Besides this, the sections also bridge the communication gap between two other units, the Soma above and the Axon below. Together with the Dendrite office, a couple of blocks next to Soma, these four offices form the single big unit—THE NEURON.
The Hillock, though being very small compared to the rest, is the most salient. To put it bluntly, it works like the kid who collects and passes several little bits of notes between two friends forced to sit apart in the opposite corners of the class! Charu is the Head Integrator of Hillock since the last three years. Known for her strictness, she has earned the nickname among her colleagues—the Chargent.
Alas, she also has a sharp ear.
“You guys think I can’t hear you all the way here? Now, get back to your jobs and if things turn out good, we all could have a nice office party at the end of the day. That sounds good for the bet?”—she grinned at the terrified faces of the two Natrites, from the Natrium section.
It was a busy day at The Hillock. Surprisingly, not just here; the microtubular roads outside too seemed to be busier than usual. Dyneins, the local transport vehicles, could be seen rushing along the roads carrying important cargo. Even the Mito Power House was charged and abuzz with all its energy production. Something indeed was out of the ordinary.
“IC team, is this screen being updated in real time? I’m seeing -68 mV for a long time now,” Charu asked the Integrator Console, who are responsible for integrating any information that arrives, and update the resultant change of in the screen.
“Yes ma’am, it is live and running. We have not received anything for a while now although I could see the traffic is surprisingly more today. Four excitons and only one inhibiton! Goodness, is it Christmas already?”
The Integrator Console office receives information from the Soma in one of the two ways. An exciton amounts to increasing the membrane potential, the quantity shown on Charu’s screen, while an inhibiton means a decrease in the membrane potential.
But, what is a membrane potential and why is it such a big deal? Now, the environment inside of a NEURON unit is vastly different from the outside—just like how our Earth is different from the outer space. Certain things, called ions, float in and out of a NEURON. But, the amount of these ions, or their concentration, is different inside and outside. This difference is the one ticking on the screen in Charu’s office.
The resultant information is then sent to the Axon office downstairs, where they then communicate with the Dendrite office of the next NEURON unit.
“Yes yes, I know today really seems different. Keep ‘em coming Soma!,” Charu cried out, though the Soma is nowhere near.
“Oh oh, two excitons coming our way. Be ready to change the membrane potential folks!”, cried a voice.
“No, wait I see two more inhibiton with them,” counteracted another.
“Alright, so we have two excitons and two inhibitons. And they just cancel each other out. So, no change in MP. Over.”
“Oh my God,” one of the interns in IC exclaimed.
“What is it? What is it? Oh, don’t tell me Soma is done with its work for today!,” Charu grimaced.
“Huh, no ma’am. If anything, I think it is time to wake the folks in the Axon office downtown. I see more than a dozen excitons our way”
“I see another crowd of ‘em my way too,” another girl from IC interrupted.
Charu was lost for words. Throughout her service, she thought she might go unnoticed only because she did not have the opportunity to share any information. The membrane potential on the screen was now unstable. Waves of excitons and inhibitons kept crashing in, and with an efficient IC team, the numbers kept ticking in a steady and an almost hypnotic pace.
Neg 59 mV...
“Natrites! Are you guys ready? You know the drill. It’s a go the moment I say,” Charu charged at the Natrium team.
Neg 58 mV...
Neg 55 mV!
“Now! Now!,” her cries now approaching the supersonic decibel scale. The office’s pet cat scrambled and hid under a desk.
The entire office was now on its heels with everyone gathered in the lounge, their eyes fixated on the screen, like a group of cricket fanatics waiting for Dhoni to seal the game with a six off the last ball.
The Natrites lined up in their cubicles and each pushed a huge red button. The Na-gates opened outside their office and the streets were flooded with incoming Na-ions each carrying a positive charge.
Now the membrane potential changed drastically. It shot towards and beyond 0 mV. Their office and the surrounding was now more positive than the outside world.
“Ooh, I always thought I’ll wither away without ever witnessing such positivity!,” remarked Charu, her face flushed with awe but suddenly construing into one with fear.
“Okay what should I do now? It has never turned positive before. Does anybody here know the protocol?”
She was greeted with blank faces and ground-turned heads.
“Somebody bring me the rulebook right now!”
Someone from the IC team scampered off to the nearby closet stacked with integrator manuals, summation codes and whatnot.
A huge, leather-bound volume of instructions, layered with years of dust and knowledge was expected to be shoved at her face. Instead, a one page brochure flitted in her hand.
“This is all I could find in the ‘HELP’ section ma’am,” the intern managed to speak with a trembling voice.
‘What! You gotta be kidding me! This doesn’t make any sense. What are we running here? A self-help community for aged people? ’
Pos 10 mV...
Charu trembled with anger. Thoughts wavered and crashed inside her. She had to wait all this time to witness something interesting and just when the sweet luck was on her side, some idiot of a manager had decided to play a prank on her team! And what was the note about again? Hitting 55. Like being in thirties and stuck in the same job is not horrifying enough. Oh, the irony of her life not being okay because of a note saying oka---
Wait, what did the note say again?
She cocked her head and started laughing. It is not okay. It was never okay. All this time, it was K. Or Kalium—the Latin word for the ash produced after burning plants (potash). Or the name of the ions whose gates has to be opened once the membrane potential hit +55.
Beaming and slightly offended by the clever pun, she called out to the Kalites team.
“Okay K people! Be ready in your stations! And wait for my signal, ‘kay?,” she teased them with a broad smile. Now, that things are exciting again, she could do with some clever puns herself.
Pos 20 mV...
Her career had begun on a very low note. Though graduating summa cum laude, she was given the position in a Natrium of an inactive Axon where she remained for ten long years.
Pos 30 mV...
But, that was not what she had dreamed. She had always wanted to lead the team that brought about the real action. She had wanted to work in The Hillock. Then, tides changed.
Pos 45 mV...
After ten years of service peppered with misogynist experiences, she headed the Natrium in the same Axon. Within a couple of months, she was promoted and transferred to head The Hillock in the same NEURON. The Hillock where any activity rarely happens that there were rumors of degenerating the entire NEURON unit. But, then again, today, tides had changed.
Pos 55 mV...
She didn’t have to say a word. At once, the Kalites opened the gates while the Natrites closed theirs. A rush of K-ions went out taking the positivity with them while the Na-ions current too stopped. The membrane potential now fell steadily, slower than it shot up, towards the negative side.
Charu breathed a sigh of relief. The hard part was over. A few more milliseconds and she would have proved that her action indeed has potential. Her office could get one of those action-potential trophies.
The membrane potential continued to dropped slowly.
Neg 10 mV...
She remembered her childhood when everyone had chided her when she told of her dreams to run the Integrator unit of a NEURON.
‘But you are a girl!’
Neg 45 mV...
‘How could you ever head a team of men? Which self-respected man would heed a woman’s order?’
Neg 60 mV...
‘Yes dear child, I understand that you want to achieve high in your life. But, isn’t it easy if you just marry and settle?’
Neg 69 mV...
But, she had braved it. Fought her way through it all.
Neg 72 mV...
And had reached the shore scathed, but victorious.
“Aaaannd, close ‘em tight Kalites! Everyone, take rest and refract a little bit. Let us hear a hurrah for everyone here!”, applauded Charu, clearing the haze in her head.
An uproar of ‘Hurrahs’ greeted her.
“The next coffee is on me. Don’t refract and slack too much, though. My gut tells me that the Soma folks are already on their next set of excitons and inhibitons. So, let’s get going!”, Charu declared.
With all the high-energy drama, a SINGLE piece of information was transferred to the Axon downtown, and then to the next NEURON! The saga is repeated a zillion times each day—when we think, see, hear or do anything! Millions of these bits of information are transferred through billions of NEURONs in the body. And that is the reason we have to THINK and use our nerve cells once in a while and give people like Charu hope!