Biophysics of Excitable Cells (PHYS*2030)

Code and section: PHYS*2030*01

Term: Winter 2011

Instructor: Monika Yazdanian


Course Information


Day Time Location
Tuesdays and Thursdays 10:00 – 11:20 THRN 1307


Day Time Location
Friday 8:30 – 9:20 MACK 238
Friday 10:30 – 11:20 ROZH 105

The final exam is on April 18, 2011.


Instructor Office Email
Dr. Monika Yazdanian 330 MacNaughton

Office hours for Dr. Yazdanian are on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11:30 – 13:00.

TA Office Email
Shannon Potter 402 McNaughton


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, i.e. the eye and ear;
  3. to show how physical principles influence the structure and function of excitable cells.

By the end of the course, students should be able to solve basic numerical problems in the above areas, as well as 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 Department Quiz Room (SCIE 1101).

Supplementary reading (available on reserve in the library)

  1. “From Neuron to Brain” by J.G. Nicholls et al.
  2. “Principles of Neural Science” by E.R. Kandel et al.


Assessment Weight
Four problem sets 25%
Mid-term exam 30%
Final exam 45%


Approximately 75% of the final grades are based on your ability to solve pure numerical problems. During tutorials, the TA will guide you through sample problems based on material presented in the lectures. If you are not well-versed in solving physics problems and do not attend the weekly tutorial, please be prepared to spend considerable extra study time on this course.

A word of warning: Although students are encouraged to discuss the material presented in the course, all problem sets must be individual work. Problem sets (and needless to say, exams) MAY NOT be a collaborative effort.

Tentative Lecture Schedule

Week Lecture Topic Readings*
1 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 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 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 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 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 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 13 Ion channels: Structure & Function

R, Ch 7; Sect 1&2;
N: 26-60;
K: 66-79; 112-118,
8 14-15 Ion channels: Function & Models

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

R, Ch 8;
K: 329-339
9 16-17 Lateral Inhibition
Vertebrate eye, structure of the retina

Vertebrate Phototransduction
R, Ch 8
R, Ch8;N:379-394;
K: 401-408
10 18-19

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 20-21 Sound; structure of the ear;
Frequency detection and coding
R, Ch9; N:372-377
K: 481-498
Olfactory receptors: Structure and function

Taste receptors: Structure and function

Review & Course/Prof Evaluation

K: 512-516
K: 518-524