Does a Nerve Axon Have an Inductance?

When I was measuring the magnetic field of a nerve axon in graduate school, I wondered if I should worry about a nerve’s inductance. Put another way, I asked if the electric field induced by the axon’s changing magnetic field is large enough to affect the propagation of the action potential.

Here is a new homework problem that will take you through the analysis that John Wikswo and I published in our paper “ The Magnetic Field of a Single Axon” (Biophysical Journal, Volume 48, Pages 93–109, 1985). Not only does it answer the question about induction, but also it provides practice in back-of-the-envelope estimation. To learn more about biomagnetism and magnetic induction, see Chapter 8 of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.

Section 8.6

Problem 29½. Consider an action potential propagating down a nerve axon. An electric field E, having a rise time T and extended over a length L, is associated with the upstroke of the action potential.

(a) Use Ohm’s law to relate E to the current density J and the electrical conductivity σ.

(b) Use Ampere’s law (Eq. 8.24, but ignore the displacement current) to estimate the magnetic field B from J and the permeability of free space, . To estimate the derivative, replace the curl operator with 1/L.

(c) Use Faraday’s law (Eq. 8.22, ignoring the minus sign) to estimate the induced electric field E* from B. Replace the time derivative by 1/T.

(d) Write your result as the dimensionless ratio E*/E.

(f) Check that the units in your calculation in part (e) are consistent with E*/E being dimensionless.

(g) Draw a picture of the axon showing E, J, B, E*, and L.

(h) What does your result in part (e) imply about the need to consider inductance when analyzing action potential propagation along a nerve axon.

For those of you who don’t have IPMB handy, Equation 8.24 (Ampere’s law, ignoring the displacement current) is

∇×B = μ0 J

and Eq. 8.22 (Faraday’s law) is

∇×E = −∂B/∂t .

I’ll leave it to you to solve this problem. However, I’ll show you my picture for part (g).

Also, for part (d) I get a small value, on the order of ten parts per billion (10^–8). The induction of a nerve axon is negligible. We don’t need an inductor when modeling a nerve axon.

Originally published at http://hobbieroth.blogspot.com.

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Professor of Physics at Oakland University and coauthor of the textbook Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.

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Brad Roth

Professor of Physics at Oakland University and coauthor of the textbook Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.