The possible cognitive effects of low frequency external electric fields (EFs), such as those generated by power lines, are poorly understood. Their functional consequences for mechanisms at the single neuron level are very difficult to study and identify experimentally, especially in vivo. The major open problem is that experimental investigations on humans have given inconsistent or contradictory results, making it difficult to estimate the possible effects of external low frequency electric fields on cognitive functions. Here we investigate this issue with realistic models of hippocampal CA1 pyramidal neurons. Our findings suggest how and why EFs, with environmentally observed frequencies and intensities far lower than what is required for direct neural activation, can perturb dendritic signal processing and somatic firing of neurons that are crucially involved in cognitive tasks such as learning and memory. These results show that individual neuronal morphology, ion channel dendritic distribution, and alignment with the electric field are major determinants of overall effects, and provide a physiologically plausible explanation of why experimental findings can appear to be small and difficult to reproduce, yet deserve serious consideration.
Keywords: extracellular field; hippocampal CA1 neuron; realistic model; simulation.