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Synapse vs. Synaptic Cleft — What's the Difference?

By Tayyaba Rehman — Published on December 9, 2023
A synapse is the junction between two nerve cells; the synaptic cleft is the tiny gap at this junction.
Synapse vs. Synaptic Cleft — What's the Difference?

Difference Between Synapse and Synaptic Cleft


Key Differences

The synapse represents an intricate communication junction between neurons in the nervous system. It's where nerve cells connect to transmit information. Within the realm of the synapse lies the synaptic cleft, a tiny space that separates the sending neuron (presynaptic) from the receiving neuron (postsynaptic). While the synapse encompasses the whole junction system, the synaptic cleft is specifically the gap where neurotransmitters travel to transmit messages.
Distinguishing between the synapse and the synaptic cleft is pivotal for understanding neural communication. The synapse is a broader term that includes not just the gap, but also the parts of the neurons that come into close proximity. On the other hand, the synaptic cleft is the specific gap where the transfer of information happens. Neurotransmitters are released from the presynaptic neuron, cross the synaptic cleft, and bind to receptors on the postsynaptic neuron.
When discussing neural function, both the synapse and the synaptic cleft play crucial roles. The synapse ensures the flow of information from one neuron to another, whereas the synaptic cleft provides the space for this transfer. Without the synaptic cleft, neurotransmitters couldn't traverse from one cell to another. However, without the broader structure of the synapse, the synaptic cleft wouldn't have context or function.
A neuron can have thousands of synapses, connecting with numerous other neurons. Each of these synapses has its synaptic cleft. Therefore, while every synaptic cleft is a part of a synapse, not every aspect of a synapse is the synaptic cleft. Understanding this distinction can help elucidate the complex orchestration of neural activity in the brain.
In a simplified sense, one can think of the synapse as a meeting room and the synaptic cleft as the open space in the middle where the conversation happens. While they're both integral to the process of neural communication, the synapse encompasses the entire setup, and the synaptic cleft focuses on the specific area of exchange.

Comparison Chart


The junction between two nerve cells
The tiny gap at the junction


Includes presynaptic neuron, postsynaptic neuron, and cleft
Just the gap itself


Site for neural communication
Space where neurotransmitters travel


Broader concept encompassing multiple components
Narrower, specifically the gap


Encompasses the entire junction, including the synaptic cleft
Is a component of the synapse

Compare with Definitions


A junction between two nerve cells.
The synapse is crucial for neural communication.

Synaptic Cleft

The area separating two connecting nerve cells.
The width of the synaptic cleft is about 20 nanometers.


The site where neurons transmit information.
Neurotransmitters are released at the synapse.

Synaptic Cleft

The tiny gap at the neural junction.
Neurotransmitters travel across the synaptic cleft.


A connection point between presynaptic and postsynaptic neurons.
Learning can involve the strengthening of synapses.

Synaptic Cleft

The space between presynaptic and postsynaptic neurons.
The synaptic cleft is where the chemical exchange occurs.


The neural interface allowing for information transfer.
Each neuron can form thousands of synapses with other neurons.

Synaptic Cleft

The specific location where neurotransmitters are released.
When an action potential reaches the end of a neuron, it releases neurotransmitters into the synaptic cleft.


The junction across which a nerve impulse passes from an axon terminal to a neuron, muscle cell, or gland cell.

Synaptic Cleft

The physical divide ensuring one-way neural communication.
Without the synaptic cleft, direct transmission between neurons would be problematic.


To form a synapse.


To undergo synapsis.


The junction between the terminal of a neuron and either another neuron or a muscle or gland cell, over which nerve impulses pass.


(intransitive) To form a synapse.


(intransitive) To undergo synapsis.


The junction between two neurons (axon-to-dendrite) or between a neuron and a muscle;
Nerve impulses cross a synapse through the action of neurotransmitters


An intricate structure facilitating neural messages.
The synapse ensures that messages flow effectively between neurons.

Common Curiosities

How are the synapse and synaptic cleft related?

The synaptic cleft is an integral part of the synapse. It's the space across which neurotransmitters travel to transmit information from one neuron to the next at chemical synapses.

What does the synaptic cleft refer to?

The synaptic cleft is the tiny gap at the synapse where neurotransmitters travel.

What are the two main types of synapses?

The two main types are chemical synapses, where neurotransmitters are used to transfer signals, and electrical synapses, where direct current flow allows communication.

What is a synaptic cleft?

A synaptic cleft is the tiny gap or space between the axon terminal (end) of one neuron and the dendrite or cell body of another neuron. It's where neurotransmitters are released in chemical synapses.

What happens to neurotransmitters after they have been used in the synaptic cleft?

After neurotransmitters transmit their signal, they are either broken down by enzymes, taken back up into the presynaptic neuron for reuse (reuptake), or diffuse away from the synapse.

Why are synaptic clefts so small?

The small size of the synaptic cleft ensures that neurotransmitters can quickly cross the gap and bind to their specific receptors on the postsynaptic neuron, allowing for rapid signal transmission.

Are there diseases or conditions associated with synapses or the synaptic cleft?

Yes. Many neurological disorders, like Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and certain types of epilepsy, are linked to abnormalities or dysfunctions at synapses.

Which is broader in scope, the synapse or the synaptic cleft?

The synapse is broader, encompassing the entire junction, including the synaptic cleft.

What is the primary function of a synapse?

The primary function of a synapse is to allow neurons to communicate with each other by transmitting signals.

What is a synapse?

A synapse is the junction between two nerve cells where they communicate.

Is the synaptic cleft a part of the synapse?

Yes, the synaptic cleft is a component of the broader synapse structure.

How do neurons communicate across the synapse?

Neurons release neurotransmitters that cross the synaptic cleft and bind to receptors on the adjacent neuron.

How do drugs and toxins impact synapses and the synaptic cleft?

Many drugs and toxins target synapses. For example, antidepressants may affect neurotransmitter reuptake, and toxins like botulinum toxin (Botox) can inhibit neurotransmitter release.

How do signals cross the synaptic cleft?

In chemical synapses, when an action potential reaches the axon terminal, neurotransmitters are released into the synaptic cleft. These neurotransmitters bind to receptors on the postsynaptic neuron, initiating a response.

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Author Spotlight

Written by
Tayyaba Rehman
Tayyaba Rehman is a distinguished writer, currently serving as a primary contributor to As a researcher in semantics and etymology, Tayyaba's passion for the complexity of languages and their distinctions has found a perfect home on the platform. Tayyaba delves into the intricacies of language, distinguishing between commonly confused words and phrases, thereby providing clarity for readers worldwide.

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