Focused ultrasound transiently increases membrane conductance in isolated crayfish axon

J Neurophysiol. 2019 Feb 1;121(2):480-489. doi: 10.1152/jn.00541.2018. Epub 2018 Dec 19.


We report a novel phenomenon produced by focused ultrasound (US) that may be important for understanding its effects on cell membranes. When a US burst (2.1 MHz, 1-mm focal diameter, 0.1-1 MPa) was focused on a motor axon of the crayfish neuromuscular junction, it consistently produced a fast hyperpolarization, which was followed or superseded by subthreshold depolarizations or action potentials in a stochastic manner. The depolarization persisted in the presence of voltage-gated channel blockers [1 µM TTX ( INa), 50 µM ZD7288 ( Ih), and 200 µM 4-aminopyridine ( IK)] and typically started shortly after the onset of a 5-ms US burst, with a mean latency of 3.35 ± 0.53 ms (SE). The duration and amplitude of depolarizations averaged 2.13 ± 0.87 s and 10.1 ± 2.09 mV, with a maximum of 200 s and 60 mV, respectively. The US-induced depolarization was always associated with a decrease in membrane resistance. By measuring membrane potential and resistance during the US-induced depolarization, the reversal potential of US-induced conductance ( gus) was estimated to be -8.4 ± 2.3 mV, suggesting a nonselective conductance. The increase in gus was 10-100 times larger than the leak conductance; thus it could significantly influence neuronal activity. This change in conductance may be due to stimulation of mechanoreceptors. Alternatively, US may perturb the lateral motion of phospholipids and produce nanopores, which then increase gus. These results may be important for understanding mechanisms underlying US-mediated modulation of neuronal activity and brain function. NEW & NOTEWORTHY We report a specific increase in membrane conductance produced by ultrasound (US) on neuronal membrane. When a 5-ms US tone burst was focused on a crayfish motor axon, it stochastically triggered either depolarization or a spike train. The depolarization was up to 60 mV in amplitude and 200 s in duration and therefore could significantly influence neuronal activity. Depolarization was still evoked by US burst in the presence of Na+ and Ca2+ channel blockers and had a reversal potential of -8.4 ± 2.3 mV, suggesting a nonselective permeability. US can be applied noninvasively in the form of a focused beam to deep brain areas through the skull and has been shown to modulate brain activity. Understanding the depolarization reported here should be helpful for improving the use of US for noninvasive modulation and stimulation in brain-related disease.

Keywords: axon; biological membrane; focused ultrasound; membrane conductance; neuromodulation.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Astacoidea
  • Axons / drug effects
  • Axons / physiology
  • Axons / radiation effects*
  • Cell Membrane / drug effects
  • Cell Membrane / physiology
  • Cell Membrane / radiation effects
  • Membrane Potentials*
  • Potassium Channel Blockers / pharmacology
  • Pyrimidines / pharmacology
  • Tetrodotoxin / pharmacology
  • Ultrasonic Waves*


  • Potassium Channel Blockers
  • Pyrimidines
  • ICI D2788
  • Tetrodotoxin