The what and where of adding channel noise to the Hodgkin-Huxley equations

PLoS Comput Biol. 2011 Nov;7(11):e1002247. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002247. Epub 2011 Nov 17.


Conductance-based equations for electrically active cells form one of the most widely studied mathematical frameworks in computational biology. This framework, as expressed through a set of differential equations by Hodgkin and Huxley, synthesizes the impact of ionic currents on a cell's voltage--and the highly nonlinear impact of that voltage back on the currents themselves--into the rapid push and pull of the action potential. Later studies confirmed that these cellular dynamics are orchestrated by individual ion channels, whose conformational changes regulate the conductance of each ionic current. Thus, kinetic equations familiar from physical chemistry are the natural setting for describing conductances; for small-to-moderate numbers of channels, these will predict fluctuations in conductances and stochasticity in the resulting action potentials. At first glance, the kinetic equations provide a far more complex (and higher-dimensional) description than the original Hodgkin-Huxley equations or their counterparts. This has prompted more than a decade of efforts to capture channel fluctuations with noise terms added to the equations of Hodgkin-Huxley type. Many of these approaches, while intuitively appealing, produce quantitative errors when compared to kinetic equations; others, as only very recently demonstrated, are both accurate and relatively simple. We review what works, what doesn't, and why, seeking to build a bridge to well-established results for the deterministic equations of Hodgkin-Huxley type as well as to more modern models of ion channel dynamics. As such, we hope that this review will speed emerging studies of how channel noise modulates electrophysiological dynamics and function. We supply user-friendly MATLAB simulation code of these stochastic versions of the Hodgkin-Huxley equations on the ModelDB website (accession number 138950) and

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Axons / physiology*
  • Decapodiformes
  • Electric Conductivity
  • Markov Chains
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Potassium Channels / physiology
  • Sodium Channels / physiology
  • Stochastic Processes


  • Potassium Channels
  • Sodium Channels