An action potential is a very rapid change in membrane potential that occurs when a nerve cell membrane is stimulated. Specifically, the membrane potential goes from the resting potential (typically -70 mV) to some positive value (typically about +30 mV) in a very short period of time (just a few milliseconds).
What causes this change in potential to occur? The stimulus causes the sodium gates (or channels) to open and, because there's more sodium on the outside than the inside of the membrane, sodium then diffuses rapidly into the nerve cell. All these positively-charged sodiums rushing in causes the membrane potential to become positive (the inside of the membrane is now positive relative to the outside). The sodium channels open only briefly, then close again.
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