What are Purkinje Cells?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

Purkinje cells are a type of neuron found in the cerebellar cortex, at the base of the brain. They are among the largest neurons, and are responsible for most of the electrochemical signaling in the cerebellum. These cells take their name from Czech anatomist Jan Evangelista PurkynÄ›, who discovered them in 1837.

Much of the cerebellum's electrochemical signaling is done by purkinje cells.
Much of the cerebellum's electrochemical signaling is done by purkinje cells.

Purkinje neurons are characterized by an elaborate branching structure of dendrites, the projections that receive electrochemical impulses from other cells. They are densely stacked within the cerebellar cortex, where they are intersected by numerous parallel fibers arising from the granule cells of the cerebellar cortex. Purkinje neurons are classified as inhibitory, as they release the neurotransmitter GABA, which binds to receptors that work by inhibiting, or reducing, the firing rate of neurons. They send inhibitory projections into dense neuron clusters in the center of the cerebellum called the deep cerebellar nuclei.

Purkinje fibers were named after a Czechoslovakian anatomist named Jan Evangelista Purkyne.
Purkinje fibers were named after a Czechoslovakian anatomist named Jan Evangelista Purkyne.

The Purkinje cells and the cerebellum are essential to the body's motor function. Disorders involving the Purkinje cells usually negatively affect the patient's movement. The Purkinje cells may be affected by both genetic and acquired disorders.

Excessive consumption of alcohol can cause the cerebellum to degenerate.
Excessive consumption of alcohol can cause the cerebellum to degenerate.

Genetic disorders affecting the Purkinje cells include cerebellar hypoplasia, autism, ataxia telangiectasia, and Niemann Pick disease Type C. In cerebellar hypoplasia, the patient is born with an underdeveloped cerebellum, either because the Purkinje cells never fully developed or because they degenerated in utero. In other genetic disorders affecting the cerebellum, symptoms may not appear until a few years after birth, after which they can worsen. Niemann Pick disease Type C sometimes causes death within a few months after birth, and in other cases does not manifest until adolescence. All cerebellar disorders are characterized by reduced motor function, such as an abnormal way of walking, seizures, involuntary eye movement, or uncoordinated movement of the limbs.

Disorders affecting the Purkinje cells may cause delays in developing fine motor skills.
Disorders affecting the Purkinje cells may cause delays in developing fine motor skills.

The Purkinje neurons can also be damaged by disorders developed later in life, such as autoimmune disorders including acquired immuno-deficiency syndrome (AIDS) and neurodegenerative disorders that are not genetic in nature. They are also subject to damage from toxic elements in the environment. Excessive use of alcohol or lithium can cause the cerebellum to degenerate. Stroke can also damage the Purkinje neurons.

Physical therapy may be used to address the effects of purkinje cell issues.
Physical therapy may be used to address the effects of purkinje cell issues.

There is no cure for any disorders affecting the Purkinje neurons. Any treatment is therefore supportive and symptomatic. For children born with cerebellar disorders, speech therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy can be helpful in improving the child's motor skills.

Niemann Pick disease Type C may not manifest until adolescence.
Niemann Pick disease Type C may not manifest until adolescence.
Speech therapy may be helpful for children born with cerebellar disorders.
Speech therapy may be helpful for children born with cerebellar disorders.
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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Discussion Comments

anon999552

So back in 1993 I had a doctor tell me I lost 85 percent of the Purkinje cells (PKC) in my cerebellum. In common terms, if I understand this correctl,y the PKC act as the network for the motor functions. In other words, you have X number of inputs and Y number of outputs and the PKC provide the pathway of getting X to Y. so if 85 oercent of the possible pathways are gone, that explains why my body goes into overload when I try to do highly demanding tasks like trying to ride a bike. My brain is telling me to pick one thing: Pedal or balance. I cannot do both without losing control (I played football, baseball, and basketball prior this event so it was not lack of basic ability)

Am I understanding the PKC correctly? 25 years in wanting some closure.

Thank you.

Glasis
The most promising research and hope for cures for ailments in this section of the brain are based in stem cell research. With stem cell research it may someday be possible to grow new replacement cells. With this, there may someday be hope for people with these crippling diseases.
Telsyst
The better known motor skills diseases are muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis and therefore get the lions share of research and funding. Ataxia is a lesser known disease that can be just as disruptive to a person's life. Ataxia is an ailment where a person can not coordinate their movement.

It may be caused by injury, infection or inherited genetically. Genetic ataxia affects men and women equally.

There are drugs used to help treat ataxia, but they are largely unsuccessful.

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