The possible consequences for cognitive functions of external electric fields at power line frequency on hippocampal CA1 pyramidal neurons

Eur J Neurosci. 2017 Apr;45(8):1024-1031. doi: 10.1111/ejn.13325. Epub 2016 Jul 26.


The possible effects on cognitive processes of external electric fields, such as those generated by power line pillars and household appliances are of increasing public concern. They are difficult to study experimentally, and the relatively scarce and contradictory evidence make it difficult to clearly assess these effects. In this study, we investigate how, why and to what extent external perturbations of the intrinsic neuronal activity, such as those that can be caused by generation, transmission and use of electrical energy can affect neuronal activity during cognitive processes. For this purpose, we used a morphologically and biophysically realistic three-dimensional model of CA1 pyramidal neurons. The simulation findings suggest that an electric field oscillating at power lines frequency, and environmentally measured strength, can significantly alter both the average firing rate and temporal spike distribution properties of a hippocampal CA1 pyramidal neuron. This effect strongly depends on the specific and instantaneous relative spatial location of the neuron with respect to the field, and on the synaptic input properties. The model makes experimentally testable predictions on the possible functional consequences for normal hippocampal functions such as object recognition and spatial navigation. The results suggest that, although EF effects on cognitive processes may be difficult to occur in everyday life, their functional consequences deserve some consideration, especially when they constitute a systematic presence in living environments.

Keywords: CA1 pyramidal neurons; cognitive processes; computational modeling; external electric field; power lines.

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology
  • Animals
  • CA1 Region, Hippocampal / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Computer Simulation
  • Electrodes, Implanted
  • Electromagnetic Fields*
  • Exploratory Behavior / physiology
  • Male
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Pyramidal Cells / physiology*
  • Rats, Long-Evans
  • Recognition, Psychology / physiology
  • Spatial Navigation / physiology
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology
  • Time Factors