Energetically Optimal Action Potentials

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 24 (NIPS 2011)

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Martin Stemmler, Biswa Sengupta, Simon Laughlin, Jeremy Niven


Most action potentials in the nervous system take on the form of strong, rapid, and brief voltage deflections known as spikes, in stark contrast to other action potentials, such as in the heart, that are characterized by broad voltage plateaus. We derive the shape of the neuronal action potential from first principles, by postulating that action potential generation is strongly constrained by the brain's need to minimize energy expenditure. For a given height of an action potential, the least energy is consumed when the underlying currents obey the bang-bang principle: the currents giving rise to the spike should be intense, yet short-lived, yielding spikes with sharp onsets and offsets. Energy optimality predicts features in the biophysics that are not per se required for producing the characteristic neuronal action potential: sodium currents should be extraordinarily powerful and inactivate with voltage; both potassium and sodium currents should have kinetics that have a bell-shaped voltage-dependence; and the cooperative action of multiple `gates' should start the flow of current.