A model for the polarization of neurons by extrinsically applied electric fields

D. Tranchina, C. Nicholson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A model is presented for the subthreshold polarization of a neuron by an applied electric field. It gives insight into how morphological features of a neuron affect its polarizability. The neuronal model consists of one or more extensively branched dendritic trees, a lumped somatic impedance, and a myelinated axon with nodes of Ranvier. The dendritic trees branch according to the 3/2-power rule of Rall, so that each tree has an equivalent cylinder representation. Equations for the membrane potential at the soma and at the nodes of Ranvier, given an arbitrary specified external potential, are derived. The solutions determine the contributions made by the dendritic tree and the axon to the net polarization at the soma. In the case of a spatially constant electric field, both the magnitude and sign of the polarization depend on simple combinations of parameters describing the neuron. One important combination is given by the ratio of internal resistances for longitudinal current spread along the dendritic tree trunk and along the axon. A second is given by the ratio between the DC space constant for the dendritic tree trunk and the distance between nodes of Ranvier in the axon. A third is given by the product of the electric field and the space constant for the trunk of the dendritic tree. When a neuron with a straight axon is subjected to a constant field, the membrane potential decays exponentially with distance from the soma. Thus, the soma seems to be a likely site for action potential initiation when the field is strong enough to elicit suprathreshold polarization. In a simple example, the way in which orientation of the various parts of the neuron affects its polarization is examined. When an axon with a bend is subjected to a spatially constant field, polarization is focused at the bend, and this is another likely site for action potential initiation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1139-1156
Number of pages18
JournalBiophysical journal
Issue number6
StatePublished - 1986

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biophysics


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