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

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Janet White || Published on February 8, 2024
Resting potential is a neuron's stable, negative charge when inactive, while action potential is the rapid, temporary change in this charge during activation.

Key Differences

Resting potential refers to the stable, negative electrical charge of a neuron when it is not transmitting a signal. This charge is typically around -70 millivolts (mV). Action potential, however, is a brief and rapid change in the electrical charge of a neuron, which occurs when a neuron sends a signal along its axon.
The resting potential is maintained by the selective permeability of the neuron's cell membrane and the action of ion pumps, which keep a higher concentration of sodium ions (Na+) outside the cell and potassium ions (K+) inside. In contrast, during an action potential, the neuron becomes temporarily depolarized as Na+ ions rush into the cell, followed by a repolarization phase where K+ ions flow out.
Resting potential is crucial for maintaining a neuron's readiness to transmit a signal. It represents a state of potential energy. Action potential represents the actual transmission of an electrical signal, a process necessary for communication throughout the nervous system.
The generation of an action potential requires a stimulus strong enough to significantly change the resting potential, usually reaching a threshold of about -55 mV. This contrasts with the relatively stable state of the resting potential, which doesn’t change significantly unless stimulated.
Resting potential is the baseline state of a neuron, while action potential is the active, dynamic process that occurs when a neuron transmits a signal.

Comparison Chart


Stable, negative charge of inactive neuron
Rapid change in charge during neuron activation

Typical Charge

About -70 mV
Rises above 0 mV and then returns

Ion Movement

Balanced ion flow, mainly K+ inside
Rapid Na+ inflow, followed by K+ outflow


Readiness to transmit signal
Actual transmission of electrical signal

Change in State

Stable unless stimulated
Quick, temporary change during signal transmission

Resting Potential and Action Potential Definitions

Resting Potential

Resting potential is a state of potential energy in a neuron's cell membrane.
Maintaining the resting potential requires constant energy expenditure by the neuron.

Action Potential

It is a fundamental process in neural communication.
Every thought and movement depends on the action potentials in neurons.

Resting Potential

Resting potential is determined by the differential distribution of ions.
The ion pumps work continuously to preserve the neuron's resting potential.

Action Potential

Action potential is a self-propagating wave of electrical disturbance.
The action potential moved quickly down the neuron, enabling rapid signal transmission.

Resting Potential

This potential is key to the neuron's readiness for activation.
The shift from resting potential signals the start of neural activity.

Action Potential

It occurs when a neuron sends a signal, temporarily reversing its charge.
The neuron's action potential was triggered by a sufficient stimulus.

Resting Potential

It reflects the balance of ions across a neuron's membrane in its inactive state.
The resting potential is crucial for a neuron's ability to respond to stimuli.

Action Potential

Action potential involves the influx of Na+ ions followed by the outflow of K+ ions.
This sequential ion movement is essential for the progression of action potential.

Resting Potential

Resting potential is the stable, negative electrical charge of a neuron when not transmitting a signal.
The neuron's resting potential was maintained at -70 mV until stimulated.

Action Potential

Action potential is the rapid change in electrical charge across a neuron's membrane during activation.
The action potential propagated along the axon, transmitting the nerve signal.


Why is resting potential negative?

It's negative due to a greater number of negatively charged particles inside the cell compared to outside.

What is the typical value of resting potential?

The typical resting potential of a neuron is around -70 millivolts.

How is resting potential maintained?

It's maintained by ion pumps and channels, mainly the sodium-potassium pump, which maintains a higher concentration of sodium ions outside and potassium ions inside the neuron.

What is resting potential?

Resting potential is the electrical charge across a neuron's plasma membrane when the neuron is not actively sending a signal.

What role do potassium ions play in resting potential?

Potassium ions help establish the resting potential by diffusing out of the neuron, creating a negative charge inside.

Does resting potential vary between cells?

Yes, different types of cells can have different resting potentials based on their membrane permeability and ion concentration.

How does resting potential affect neuron function?

It prepares the neuron to respond rapidly to a stimulus, enabling quick transmission of action potentials.

Can resting potential change?

Yes, it can change due to alterations in ion concentrations or membrane permeability, often as a response to stimuli.

Is resting potential a form of potential energy?

Yes, it represents electrical potential energy stored across the neuron's membrane.

How is resting potential measured?

It's measured using electrophysiological techniques like patch-clamp recordings.

What is an action potential?

An action potential is a rapid, temporary change in a neuron's membrane potential, during which it becomes more positive and then returns to resting potential.

What is the threshold potential?

Threshold potential is the critical level to which the membrane potential must be depolarized to initiate an action potential.

What is the all-or-none principle in action potentials?

It's the concept that once a threshold is reached, an action potential will always fire at the same intensity; it either occurs fully or not at all.

What is repolarization?

Repolarization is the process of the membrane potential returning to the resting potential after the peak of an action potential.

How is an action potential generated?

It's generated when a neuron's membrane potential reaches a certain threshold, triggering voltage-gated ion channels to open and change the membrane potential.

What is the refractory period?

It's a period immediately following an action potential during which the neuron is unable to fire another action potential.

How does myelination affect action potentials?

Myelination increases the speed of action potential propagation along the axon through a process called saltatory conduction.

What roles do sodium ions play in action potentials?

Sodium ions enter the neuron when voltage-gated sodium channels open, causing depolarization, which is essential for the propagation of action potentials.

How fast do action potentials travel?

The speed varies, but it can range from 1 meter/second in unmyelinated neurons to over 100 meters/second in myelinated neurons.

Can action potentials vary in strength?

No, action potentials are uniform in strength; however, the frequency of action potentials can vary to convey different information.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
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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