Tissue damage thresholds during therapeutic electrical stimulation

J Neural Eng. 2016 Apr;13(2):021001. doi: 10.1088/1741-2560/13/2/021001. Epub 2016 Jan 20.


Objective: Recent initiatives in bioelectronic modulation of the nervous system by the NIH (SPARC), DARPA (ElectRx, SUBNETS) and the GlaxoSmithKline Bioelectronic Medicines effort are ushering in a new era of therapeutic electrical stimulation. These novel therapies are prompting a re-evaluation of established electrical thresholds for stimulation-induced tissue damage.

Approach: In this review, we explore what is known and unknown in published literature regarding tissue damage from electrical stimulation.

Main results: For macroelectrodes, the potential for tissue damage is often assessed by comparing the intensity of stimulation, characterized by the charge density and charge per phase of a stimulus pulse, with a damage threshold identified through histological evidence from in vivo experiments as described by the Shannon equation. While the Shannon equation has proved useful in assessing the likely occurrence of tissue damage, the analysis is limited by the experimental parameters of the original studies. Tissue damage is influenced by factors not explicitly incorporated into the Shannon equation, including pulse frequency, duty cycle, current density, and electrode size. Microelectrodes in particular do not follow the charge per phase and charge density co-dependence reflected in the Shannon equation. The relevance of these factors to tissue damage is framed in the context of available reports from modeling and in vivo studies.

Significance: It is apparent that emerging applications, especially with microelectrodes, will require clinical charge densities that exceed traditional damage thresholds. Experimental data show that stimulation at higher charge densities can be achieved without causing tissue damage, suggesting that safety parameters for microelectrodes might be distinct from those defined for macroelectrodes. However, these increased charge densities may need to be justified by bench, non-clinical or clinical testing to provide evidence of device safety.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Electric Stimulation Therapy / adverse effects
  • Electric Stimulation Therapy / methods
  • Electric Stimulation Therapy / standards*
  • Electrodes, Implanted / adverse effects
  • Electrodes, Implanted / standards*
  • Humans
  • Microelectrodes / adverse effects
  • Models, Theoretical*
  • Sensory Thresholds* / physiology
  • Skin / pathology