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2 3 Milliseconds

Figure 5-18

Effect of stimuli of increasing voltages to elicit an action potential. Note development of "acute subthreshold potentials" when the stimuli are below the threshold value required for eliciting an action potential.

Excitation of a Nerve Fiber by a Negatively Charged Metal Electrode. The usual means for exciting a nerve or muscle in the experimental laboratory is to apply electricity to the nerve or muscle surface through two small electrodes, one of which is negatively charged and the other positively charged. When this is done, the excitable membrane becomes stimulated at the negative electrode.

The cause of this effect is the following: Remember that the action potential is initiated by the opening of voltage-gated sodium channels. Further, these channels are opened by a decrease in the normal resting electrical voltage across the membrane. That is, negative current from the electrode decreases the voltage on the outside of the membrane to a negative value nearer to the voltage of the negative potential inside the fiber. This decreases the electrical voltage across the membrane and allows the sodium channels to open, resulting in an action potential. Conversely, at the positive electrode, the injection of positive charges on the outside of the nerve membrane heightens the voltage difference across the membrane rather than lessening it. This causes a state of hyperpolarization, which actually decreases the excitability of the fiber rather than causing an action potential.

Threshold for Excitation, and "Acute Local Potentials." A weak negative electrical stimulus may not be able to excite a fiber. However, when the voltage of the stimulus is increased, there comes a point at which excitation does take place. Figure 5-18 shows the effects of successively applied stimuli of progressing strength. A very weak stimulus at point A causes the membrane potential to change from -90 to -85 millivolts, but this is not a sufficient change for the automatic regenerative processes of the action potential to develop. At point B, the stimulus is greater, but again, the intensity is still not enough. The stimulus does, however, disturb the membrane potential locally for as long as 1 millisecond or more after both of these weak stimuli. These local potential changes are called acute local potentials, and when they fail to elicit an action potential, they are called acute subthreshold potentials.

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Essentials of Human Physiology

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