Electroporation by nanosecond pulses often occurs below the excitation threshold.
Electroporation may cause, assist, or impede excitation.
Nanosecond pulses have low efficiency for cell excitation and activation.
Large membrane charging time constant may enable damage-free excitation.
Conventional electric stimuli of micro- and millisecond duration excite or activate cells at voltages 10-100 times below the electroporation threshold. This ratio is remarkably different for nanosecond electric pulses (nsEP), which caused excitation and activation only at or above the electroporation threshold in diverse cell lines, primary cardiomyocytes, neurons, and chromaffin cells. Depolarization to the excitation threshold often results from (or is assisted by) the loss of the resting membrane potential due to ion leaks across the membrane permeabilized by nsEP. Slow membrane resealing and the build-up of electroporation damages prevent repetitive excitation by nsEP. However, peripheral nerves and muscles are exempt from this rule and withstand multiple cycles of excitation by nsEP without the loss of function or signs of electroporation. We show that the damage-free excitation by nsEP may be enabled by the membrane charging time constant sufficiently large to (1) cap the peak transmembrane voltage during nsEP below the electroporation threshold, and (2) extend the post-nsEP depolarization long enough to activate voltage-gated ion channels. The low excitatory efficacy of nsEP compared to longer pulses makes them advantageous for medical applications where the neuromuscular excitation is an unwanted side effect, such as electroporation-based cancer and tissue ablation.
Nanosecond pulse stimulation
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