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Large naturally-produced electric currents and voltage traverse damaged mammalian spinal cord

Mahvash Zuberi1, Peishan Liu-Snyder2, Aeraj ul Haque3, David M Porterfield4 and Richard B Borgens5*

  • * Corresponding author: Richard B Borgens

  • † Equal contributors

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA

2 Department of Biomedical Engineering, Brown University, Providence, RI, USA

3 Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA

4 Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Department Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering, Bindley Bioscience Center, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA

5 Center for Paralysis Research, School of Veterinary Medicine; Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering, College of Engineering; 408 S. University St., Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA

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Journal of Biological Engineering 2008, 2:17  doi:10.1186/1754-1611-2-17

Published: 30 December 2008



Immediately after damage to the nervous system, a cascade of physical, physiological, and anatomical events lead to the collapse of neuronal function and often death. This progression of injury processes is called "secondary injury." In the spinal cord and brain, this loss in function and anatomy is largely irreversible, except at the earliest stages. We investigated the most ignored and earliest component of secondary injury. Large bioelectric currents immediately enter damaged cells and tissues of guinea pig spinal cords. The driving force behind these currents is the potential difference of adjacent intact cell membranes. For perhaps days, it is the biophysical events caused by trauma that predominate in the early biology of neurotrauma.


An enormous (≤ mA/cm2) bioelectric current transverses the site of injury to the mammalian spinal cord. This endogenous current declines with time and with distance from the local site of injury but eventually maintains a much lower but stable value (< 50 μA/cm2).

The calcium component of this net current, about 2.0 pmoles/cm2/sec entering the site of damage for a minimum of an hour, is significant. Curiously, injury currents entering the ventral portion of the spinal cord may be as high as 10 fold greater than those entering the dorsal surface, and there is little difference in the magnitude of currents associated with crush injuries compared to cord transection. Physiological measurements were performed with non-invasive sensors: one and two-dimensional extracellular vibrating electrodes in real time. The calcium measurement was performed with a self-referencing calcium selective electrode.


The enormous bioelectric current, carried in part by free calcium, is the major initiator of secondary injury processes and causes significant damage after breach of the membranes of vulnerable cells adjacent to the injury site. The large intra-cellular voltages, polarized along the length of axons in particular, are believed to be associated with zones of organelle death, distortion, and asymmetry observed in acutely injured nerve fibers. These data enlarge our understanding of secondary mechanisms and provide new ways to consider interfering with this catabolic and progressive loss of tissue.