Physiological Reviews

Nonsynaptic modulation of neuronal activity in the brain: electric currents and extracellular ions

J. G. Jefferys


Nonsynaptic interactions between neurons have been eclipsed by our increasingly detailed understanding of chemical synapses, but they do play significant roles in the nervous system. This review considers four classes of nonsynaptic interaction, mainly in mammalian brain. 1) Electrotonic (and chemical) coupling through gap junctions has effects during development and under some, often pathological, conditions in the mature brain. 2) Ephaptic transmission is mediated by electrical coupling between specific neuronal elements in the absence of specialized contacts, notably in the cerebellum, and in axon tracts affected by demyelination. 3) Field effect interactions are mediated by large extracellular currents and potential fields generated by the hippocampus and other cortical structures. Both endogenous and applied electric fields alter neuronal excitability at field strengths over a few millivolts per millimeter. Weaker fields have more subtle effects, for instance, on axonal growth during development and repair and, more controversially, in behavioral responses to environmental fields. 4) There are fluctuations in extracellular ions such as K+, which are released during neuronal activity and which alter neuronal excitability. Field effects and ion fluctuations probably have modest effects during physiological activity but have a significant impact on epileptic seizures, and can sustain them in the absence of synaptic transmission.