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PeerJ. 2018 Dec 3;6:e6020. doi: 10.7717/peerj.6020. eCollection 2018.

Shielding effects of myelin sheath on axolemma depolarization under transverse electric field stimulation.

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Department of Biology, Loyola University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA.


Axonal stimulation with electric currents is an effective method for controlling neural activity. An electric field parallel to the axon is widely accepted as the predominant component in the activation of an axon. However, recent studies indicate that the transverse component to the axolemma is also effective in depolarizing the axon. To quantitatively investigate the amount of axolemma polarization induced by a transverse electric field, we computed the transmembrane potential (Vm) for a conductive body that represents an unmyelinated axon (or the bare axon between the myelin sheath in a myelinated axon). We also computed the transmembrane potential of the sheath-covered axonal segment in a myelinated axon. We then systematically analyzed the biophysical factors that affect axonal polarization under transverse electric stimulation for both the bare and sheath-covered axons. Geometrical patterns of polarization of both axon types were dependent on field properties (magnitude and field orientation to the axon). Polarization of both axons was also dependent on their axolemma radii and electrical conductivities. The myelin provided a significant "shielding effect" against the transverse electric fields, preventing excessive axolemma depolarization. Demyelination could allow for prominent axolemma depolarization in the transverse electric field, via a significant increase in myelin conductivity. This shifts the voltage drop of the myelin sheath to the axolemma. Pathological changes at a cellular level should be considered when electric fields are used for the treatment of demyelination diseases. The calculated term for membrane polarization (Vm) could be used to modify the current cable equation that describes axon excitation by an external electric field to account for the activating effects of both parallel and transverse fields surrounding the target axon.


Axon; Cable equation; Electric stimulation; Myelin; Shielding effect; Transverse field

Conflict of interest statement

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

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