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Graded Potential vs. Action Potential: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Harlon Moss || Published on November 25, 2023
Graded potentials are variable-strength signals that decrease with distance, while action potentials are all-or-none electrical impulses that travel long distances in neurons.

Key Differences

Graded potentials are changes in membrane potential that vary in size, depending on the strength of the stimulus. However, action potentials are rapid, uniform changes in membrane potential that occur once a certain threshold is reached.
Graded potentials can be either depolarizing or hyperpolarizing and their magnitude diminishes as they travel through the neuron. While, action potentials maintain their intensity over long distances and are always depolarizing.
Graded potentials are often the precursors to action potentials, initiating in the dendrites or cell body. In contrast, action potentials typically start at the axon hillock and propagate along the axon.
The generation of graded potentials does not require a threshold stimulus and can be caused by various external or internal stimuli. Action potentials require a specific threshold to be crossed and are an all-or-none response.
Graded potentials play a role in modulating the neuronal response and synaptic strength. Action potentials are crucial for long-distance intracellular communication, such as in neural and muscular tissues.

Comparison Chart

Signal Strength

Varies with stimulus strength
Constant, all-or-none

Distance of Travel

Decreases with distance, localized
Travels long distances without decreasing


Can be depolarizing or hyperpolarizing
Always depolarizing


No threshold required, often in dendrites/cell body
Requires threshold, starts at axon hillock


Modulates neuronal response, synaptic strength
Long-distance communication within the nervous system

Graded Potential and Action Potential Definitions

Graded Potential

Graded potentials diminish in intensity as they travel.
As the graded potential moves away from the stimulus site, it weakens.

Action Potential

They occur when a neuron's membrane reaches a certain threshold.
A strong enough stimulus can cause the neuron to reach the threshold for an action potential.

Graded Potential

Graded potentials are variable electrical changes in a neuron's membrane.
A light touch generates a small graded potential in sensory neurons.

Action Potential

Action potentials maintain their intensity over long distances.
Action potentials travel the length of the neuron without losing strength.

Graded Potential

They vary in size based on the strength of the stimulus.
Stronger stimuli cause larger graded potentials in the neuron.

Action Potential

Action potentials are rapid, uniform electrical impulses in neurons.
When a neuron fires, an action potential is sent down the axon.

Graded Potential

Graded potentials are crucial for initiating action potentials.
A sufficiently strong graded potential can trigger an action potential at the axon hillock.

Action Potential

They follow an all-or-none principle.
Once triggered, an action potential will propagate fully along the neuron.

Graded Potential

They can either increase (depolarize) or decrease (hyperpolarize) membrane potential.
A chemical signal may cause a hyperpolarizing graded potential in the cell.

Action Potential

Action potentials are essential for long-distance neuronal communication.
Action potentials allow neurons to transmit signals throughout the nervous system.


Can graded potentials vary in size?

Yes, their size depends on the strength of the stimulus.

What part of the neuron do graded potentials typically occur in?

They often occur in dendrites and the cell body.

What determines the direction of a graded potential?

It depends on whether the membrane depolarizes or hyperpolarizes.

Are action potentials always the same size?

Yes, they follow an all-or-none principle and are uniform in size.

What triggers an action potential?

It’s triggered when a neuron's membrane reaches a specific threshold.

How far do action potentials travel?

They travel long distances along the neuron without losing strength.

What is the role of sodium and potassium in action potentials?

Sodium influx causes depolarization, while potassium efflux causes repolarization.

What is a graded potential?

It's a variable change in a neuron’s membrane potential.

How do action potentials ensure one-way signal transmission?

The refractory period prevents the action potential from traveling backwards.

Do graded potentials require a threshold?

No, they do not require a specific threshold to occur.

How does the intensity of a stimulus affect graded potentials?

Stronger stimuli generate larger graded potentials.

Can graded potentials summate?

Yes, multiple graded potentials can summate to reach the threshold for an action potential.

What happens when an action potential reaches the end of a neuron?

It triggers the release of neurotransmitters at the synapse.

Can a graded potential trigger an action potential?

Yes, if it is strong enough to reach the threshold at the axon hillock.

What is the refractory period in an action potential?

It's a period immediately following an action potential during which the neuron cannot fire again.

What is the threshold typically required for an action potential?

This varies but is generally around -55 mV in many neurons.

How do graded potentials contribute to the integrative function of neurons?

They allow neurons to integrate multiple signals before triggering an action potential.

Are there different types of action potentials?

The basic mechanism is similar, but the duration and size can vary among different types of cells.

What is the significance of graded potential's decremental nature?

It allows the cell to modulate the strength and duration of the signal.

Why don't action potentials diminish in strength?

Due to the regenerative nature of ion channel opening along the axon.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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