Computationally efficient simulation of electrical activity at cell membranes interacting with self-generated and externally imposed electric fields
Objective . We present a computational method that implements a reduced set of Maxwell's equations to allow simulation of cells under realistic conditions: sub-micron cell morphology, a conductive non-homogeneous space and various ion channel properties and distributions. Approach . While a reduced set of Maxwell's equations can be used to couple membrane currents to extra- and intracellular potentials, this approach is rarely taken, most likely because adequate computational tools are missing. By using these equations, and introducing an implicit solver, numerical stability is attained even with large time steps. The time steps are limited only by the time development of the membrane potentials. Main results . This method allows simulation times of tens of minutes instead of weeks, even for complex problems. The extracellular fields are accurately represented, including secondary fields, which originate at inhomogeneities of the extracellular space and can reach several millivolts. We present a set of instructive examples that show how this method can be used to obtain reference solutions for problems, which might not be accurately captured by the traditional approaches. This includes the simulation of realistic magnitudes of extracellular action potential signals in restricted extracellular space. Significance . The electric activity of neurons creates extracellular potentials. Recent findings show that these endogenous fields act back onto the neurons, contributing to the synchronization of population activity. The influence of endogenous fields is also relevant for understanding therapeutic approaches such as transcranial direct current, transcranial magnetic and deep brain stimulation. The mutual interaction between fields and membrane currents is not captured by today's concepts of cellular electrophysiology, including the commonly used activation function, as those concepts are based on isolated membranes in an infinite, isopotential extracellular space. The presented tool makes simulations with detailed morphology and implicit interactions of currents and fields available to the electrophysiology community.