Time constants and electrotonic length of membrane cylinders and neurons

Biophys J. 1969 Dec;9(12):1483-508. doi: 10.1016/S0006-3495(69)86467-2.


A theoretical basis is provided for the estimation of the electrotonic length of a membrane cylinder, or the effective electrotonic length of a whole neuron, from electrophysiological experiments. It depends upon the several time constants present in passive decay of membrane potential from an initially nonuniform distribution over the length. In addition to the well known passive membrane time constant, tau(m) = R(m)C(m), observed in the decay of a uniform membrane potential, there exist many smaller time constants that govern rapid equalization of membrane potential over the length. These time constants are present also in the transient response to a current step applied across the membrane at one location, such as the neuron soma. Similar time constants are derived when a lumped soma is coupled to one or more cylinders representing one or more dendritic trees. Different time constants are derived when a voltage clamp is applied at one location; the effects of both leaky and short-circuited termination are also derived. All of these time constants are demonstrated as consequences of mathematical boundary value problems. These results not only provide a basis for estimating electrotonic length, L = [unk]/lambda, but also provide a new basis for estimating the steady-state ratio, rho, of cylinder input conductance to soma membrane conductance.

MeSH terms

  • Membrane Potentials*
  • Models, Neurological
  • Motor Neurons*
  • Time Factors
  • Time*