Electrodiffusion of Ions Across a Neural Cell Membrane

The Nernst-Planck equation describes the diffusion of ions in the presence of an electric field. Here, it is applied to describe the movement of ions across a neural cell membrane. The top half of the demonstration sets up the simulation, while the bottom displays the outcome. Four different ions that play key roles in neural dynamics - - may be selected, and their interior and exterior concentrations adjusted using the sliders (shown in dotted and dashed green). The electric field across the membrane is assumed constant, such that the potential is linear, shown in the left plot. Three different initial concentration distributions are possible, shown by a dashed blue line in the right plot. The total simulation time may be set to either a relatively short or long time (slight delay to update). Once the parameters are set, press the "run simulation" button to generate the time course of the ion concentration, shown in solid blue. Move the simulation time slider to view the evolution of the distribution in time. If the parameters are changed, the curve turns to a dashed gray to indicate that the simulation should be run again. Equilibrium for the concentration of a single ion occurs when the potential is set to the Nernst reversal potential, and the initial distribution is set such that no ionic current exists, each shown in brown in the left and right plots.
  • Contributed by: Oliver K. Ernst



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Snapshot 1: the time evolution of sodium ions from an initially linear concentration distribution.
Snapshot 2: at the Nernst reversal potential, for an appropriate initial concentration distribution the system is at equilbrium.
Snapshot 3: the initial delta spike of potassium ions decays as ions drift due to diffusion and the electric field.
Ions undergoing diffusion in the presence of an electric field give rise to an ionic current flux ) at position and time as
where () is the diffusion constant, is the ionic concentration, is the ion's charge (unitless), is the Faraday constant, is the universal gas constant, is the temperature and is the electric potential [1][2]. Combined with the continuity equation
the Nernst-Planck equation describing the evolution of the ionic concentration in time is obtained as
In this demonstration, this equation is considered in a one-dimensional form to describe the diffusion of ions across a neural membrane. Let denote the direction through the membrane, perpendicular to the surface, where is the width of the membrane, such that identify the interior, exterior of the neuron. Divide this distance into compartments of width . Furthermore, discretize time into time steps such that for and . Let and denote the constant ion concentration and potential in compartment at time step . A finite difference approximation of the Nernst-Planck equation with zero-flux boundary conditions at the membrane boundaries is
As parameter values, we take the membrane width , the spacing , the temperature . It is assumed that the electric field is constant across the membrane, i.e. the potential is a linear function of the distance, with a potential set at . The time step is chosen to satisfy the stability criteria obtained by a von Neumann stability analysis [3]
where is the magnitude of the electric field.
Four ion species may be examined, with diffusion constants taken from [1] (Table 10.1) at in units of as
Note that these values are approximate, and the diffusion constant may in general vary with temperature and across the membrane. The default values [1] (Table 1.3) of the initial interior concentrations in are
and exterior concentrations are
These values may be adjusted using the sliders which add/subtract a percentage of the default concentrations.
Three initial concentration shapes are possible:
(i) the equilibrium shape at the Nernst reversal potential. If the membrane potential is also set to the Nernst reversal potential, the ionic flux is zero and the initial distribution is the equilbrium, indicated by a solid brown line.
(ii) a linear shape between the interior and exterior concetrations.
(iii) a delta function shape, with zero initial concentration everywhere across the membrane except the endpoints.
Note finally the connection between the Nernst-Planck equation and the Goldman-Hodgkin-Katz equation, which may be derived as the solution to the first differential equation above for constant ionic current flux.
[1] B. Hille, Ion channels of excitable membranes, Sunderland, Mass: Sinauer, 2001. Print.
[2] Koch, Christof, Biophysics of computation information processing in single neurons, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.
[3] Wikipedia, "Von Neumann stability analysis," Web, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Von_Neumann _stability _analysis&oldid=674227751.