Biophysics of Excitable Cells (PHYS*2030)

Code and section: PHYS*2030*01

Term: Winter 2010

Instructor: Jason Thomas


Course Information


Instructor Office Extension Email
Jason 'The Great Orbax' Thomas MacN 404 52625

Office hours: MWF 10:30 - 11:30

Tutorial Instructor Office Extension Email
Andrew Gravelle MacN 020 58541

Course Access

Course Website


Day Time Location
Tue, Thu 10:00 - 11:20 THRN 1307


Section Day Time Location
#1 Fri. 10:30 - 11:20 THRN 1307
#2 Fri. 8:30 - 9:20 CRSC 117

(no tutorials in the midterm week, Feb 19th)


The main objectives of this course are to provide a basic understanding of the physical phenomena underlying nerve and membrane activity, and to illustrate how these are applied to different types of excitable cells. The specific objectives are:

  1. to show how the basic principles of diffusion and electricity apply to biological membranes and individual nerve cells, giving rise to resting and action potentials;
  2. to demonstrate how neural processes are utilized in sensory systems, such as the eye and ear;
  3. to show how physical principles influence the structure and function of excitable cells.

At the end of the course, students should be able to solve basic numerical problems in the above areas, as well as to understand and explain the integration of physical principles in specific biological examples. Evaluation of a student's comprehension of the course material will involve a combination of solving numerical problems and answering questions about principles and structures of cells and organs in four problem sets, one mid-term examination, and a COMPREHENSIVE FINAL EXAMINATION.

Course Materials

Required Text

  • "Biophysics of Excitable Cells" by G.H. Renninger, U. of Guelph, 2003.
    Available from the Physics Dept. Quiz Room (SCIE1101).

Supplementary Reading {Available in the Library - On Reserve}

  1. "From Neuron to Brain" by J.G. Nicholls et al. QP 355.2.K83 2001
  2. "Principles of Neural Science" by E.R. Kandel et al. QP 355.2.P76 1991


Assessment Notes Weight
4 Problem Sets (6% each) Due Tuesdays at start of class 9:30 (See the schedule below)
Put into the drop box, MacN, 4th Floor or hand in before lecture
Mid-term Exam Thu 4 Mar 2010, THRN 1307,
(80 min exactly) 10:00-11:20 AM
Final Examination 21 Apr 2010, location TBA
(2 h exactly) 7:00-9:00 PM
Total   100%


The course consists of two 80 min lectures plus a one-hour tutorial each week (you have been sectioned into one or the other of the two tutorial sessions), except for the midterm week, Mar 4th, when there will be no tutorial. The tutorials constitute an important part of the course. Approximately three-fourths of the final grades are based on your ability to solve pure numerical problems. Consequently, the tutorials consist primarily of problem-solving sessions based on material presented in the lectures. If you have had difficulty with physics courses in the past and do not attend the weekly tutorial, you should be prepared to spend considerable extra study time on this course.

Tentative Lecture Schedule

Week Dates Lecture Topic Readings*
1 Tue, Thu
12, 14 Jan

(Tutorial 1)15 Jan
1,2 Introduction to the Course
Structure of biological membranes
Permeability of ions
R, Ch 1

R, Ch 1
R, Ch 2, Sect 1
R, Ch 2, Sect 2
2 Tue, Thu
19, 21 Jan

(Tutorial 2) 22 Jan
3,4 Active transport

Coulomb's law
Electrical potential energy and work
Electric field and potential, capacitance
R, Ch 2, Sect 3;

R, Ch 3, Sect 1
R, Ch 3, Sect 2
R, Ch 3, Sects 3-5
3 Tue, Thu
26, 28 Jan

(Tutorial 3) 29 Jan
5,6 Electric current and mobility
Nernst equation; Donnan equilibrium

D.C. electric circuits
R, Ch 4, Sect 1
R, Ch 4, Sect 2;
N: 77-81; K: 81-86
R, Ch 4, App A;
N&K: App A
4 Tue, Thu
2,4 Feb

(Tutorial 4) 5 Feb
7,8 Equivalent circuit of a membrane;

Goldman-Hodgkin-Katz equation
R, Ch 4, Sect 2;
N: 86-88;K: 89-94
R, Ch 4, Sect 2;
N: 81-86; K: 88-89
5 (PS1 due) 9 Feb
Tue, Thu
9, 11 Feb

(Tutorial 5) 12 Feb
9-10 Injection of current;
Passive electrical properties of the nerve
Details of the nerve impulse

Voltage clamp and ionic currents

R,Ch 5,Sects 1&2;
R, Ch 5, Sect 3;
N: 91-94,121-128;
K: 100-105
R, Ch 5, Sect 4;
N: 94-103;
K: 105-112
6 Tue, Thu
23, 25 Feb

(Tutorial 6) 26 Feb
11-12 Synaptic transmission;

Neuromuscular junction

Electrical synapses

Film: The Squid and its Giant Nerve Fiber
R, Ch 6, Sect 1;
N: 160-225,
K: 131-146,
149-152, 194-210
R, Ch 6, Sect 2;
N: 158-160;
K: 124-131
7 (PS2 due) Mar 2
2 Mar

Thu, 4 Mar

(No tutorial) 5 Mar
13 Ion channels: Structure & Function

R, Ch 7; Sect 1&2;
N: 26-60;
K: 66-79; 112-118,
8 Tue, Thu
9, 11 Mar

(Tutorial 7) 12 Mar
14-15 Ion channels: Function & Models

Invertebrate vision;
R, Ch 7; Sect 3;
N: 103-110

R, Ch 8;
K: 329-339
9 (PS3 due) Mar 16
Tue, Thu
16, 18 Mar

(Tutorial 8) 19 Mar
16-17 Lateral Inhibition
Vertebrate eye, structure of the retina

Vertebrate Phototransduction
R, Ch 8
R, Ch8;N:379-394;
K: 401-408
10 Tue, Thu
23, 25 Mar

(Tutorial 9) 26 Mar

Electrical responses of retinal cells, visual fields, neural connections

Vertebrate hair cell function

R, Ch8; N:394-405
K: 408-416

R, Ch9; N:366-372
11 Tue, Thu
30 Mar. 1 Apr

(Tutorial 10) 2 Apr
20-21 Sound; structure of the ear;
Frequency detection and coding
R, Ch9; N:372-377
K: 481-498
12 (PS4 due) Apr 6
Tue, Thu
6, 8 Apr

(Tutorial 11) 9 Apr
Olfactory receptors: Structure and function

Taste receptors: Structure and function

Review & Course/Prof Evaluation

K: 512-516
K: 518-524

Final Examination Wed 21 Apr 2010, 7:00-9:00 PM, location TBA

  • *R - "Biophysics of Excitable Cells", by G.H. Renninger
  • *N - "From Neuron to Brain", by Nicholls et al. (on reserve - see Supplementary Reading above)
  • *K - "Principles of Neural Science", by Kandel et al. (on reserve - see Supplementary Reading above)

Course Policies

Plagiarism: Although students are encouraged to share thoughts and ideas, all material submitted for grading must be each student's own work. Submitting someone else's work as your own is plagiarism. Plagiarism is a form of academic misconduct, and will not be tolerated.