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Biomed Eng Online. 2005 Sep 7;4:53.

Classification of the extracellular fields produced by activated neural structures.

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Department of Biomedical Engineering, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, Pa 17837, USA.



Classifying the types of extracellular potentials recorded when neural structures are activated is an important component in understanding nerve pathophysiology. Varying definitions and approaches to understanding the factors that influence the potentials recorded during neural activity have made this issue complex.


In this article, many of the factors which influence the distribution of electric potential produced by a traveling action potential are discussed from a theoretical standpoint with illustrative simulations.


For an axon of arbitrary shape, it is shown that a quadrupolar potential is generated by action potentials traveling along a straight axon. However, a dipole moment is generated at any point where an axon bends or its diameter changes. Next, it is shown how asymmetric disturbances in the conductivity of the medium surrounding an axon produce dipolar potentials, even during propagation along a straight axon. Next, by studying the electric fields generated by a dipole source in an insulating cylinder, it is shown that in finite volume conductors, the extracellular potentials can be very different from those in infinite volume conductors. Finally, the effects of impulses propagating along axons with inhomogeneous cable properties are analyzed.


Because of the well-defined factors affecting extracellular potentials, the vague terms far-field and near-field potentials should be abandoned in favor of more accurate descriptions of the potentials.

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