The ins and outs of field potentials

Recording field potentials was the first form of electrophysiology I ever did, and because of that, I tend to think that field potentials are simple. But the reality is far different. Field potentials, in my view, are harder to gain a solid understanding of than intracellular membrane potentials. So I’m going to try to take a ‘first principles’ approach to thinking about field potentials. To motivate us, I’m going to present exhibit ‘A': The hippocampal CA1 population spike.

Exhibit A: A CA1 population spike.

Exhibit A: A CA1 population spike. Recorded by me in 2004.

A CA1 population spike is the field potential recorded near the cell bodies of the CA1 pyramidal cells, when their afferents are stimulated strongly enough to cause the CA1 cells to spike. You see a brief upward deflection, which is an artefact from the electrical stimulation used to activate the afferents. Then you see a small downward deflection, which is due to the action potential in the afferent fibers. Then you see the population spike: the large, brief, negative potential caused by thousands of neurons spiking synchronously. It is negative because when the action potential is generated, Na+ moves into the cell, making the extracellular space negative. But here is a question: Why does the population spike appear to be resting on a positive going hump? Read on and find out, and learn more about field potentials in general.
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