Friday, May 2, 2008

The Hodgkin and Huxley Model

In the 1940s and 50s, Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley discovered the ionic basis for nerve conduction, work that resulted in their sharing the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Chapter 6 in the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology describes the Hodgkin-Huxley model in detail. Yet, no textbook can replace the experience of peering over Hodgkin's shoulder while he performs the voltage clamp experiments on a squid nerve axon that were crucial for their discoveries. Fortunately, a movie was made of these experiments, and clips from it can be found online, at a website for a neurophysiology class at Smith College. I particularly recommend the clip “Dissection and Anatomy” showing the dissection of the giant axon from a squid by J. Z. Young, and “Voltage Clamping” by P. F. Baker and Hodgkin himself.

When I teach Biological Physics at Oakland University, I like to have my students read Hodgkin and Huxley's classic paper
“A Quantitative Description of Membrane Current and its Application to Conduction and Excitation in Nerve” (Journal of Physiology, Volume 117, Pages 500–544, 1952). A pdf of this article is available online. However, if you encourage your students to read it, be sure to warn them that the definition of the transmembrane potential is different than is used now, with their definition being the outside minus the inside voltage, and zero being rest. (Nowadays, researchers typically use inside minus outside, with rest corresponding to -65 mV). Writing a program to simulate the Hodgkin and Huxley model is the best way to learn about it (we have a sample of such a program in Fig. 6.38 or our textbook), but those who are not programmers might want to try this applet that allows online simulation of a nerve action potential.

Alan Hodgkin and voltage clamping.

 John Young dissecting a squid giant axon. 

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