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Correspondence: Reply to ‘Revisiting the theoretical cell membrane thermal capacitance response’

Nature Communicationsvolume 8, Article number: 1432 (2017) | Download Citation


We thank Plaksin, Kimmel, and Shoham for their correspondence regarding our 2012 article on the mechanism of infrared stimulation of excitable cells1. In this study, we showed that the heating of cellular water by infrared light leads to an increase in the electrical capacitance of the cell membrane. This time-varying capacitance produces a current leading to membrane depolarization and generation of action potentials. Although our experimental findings were the primary focus of the paper and account for most of its impact to date, we also attempted to provide a theoretical explanation of how the membrane capacitance changes with temperature.

As Plaksin et al. point out in their accompanying correspondence, our theoretical explanation relied on the Genet et al.2 model of the coupled double layer capacitance across the cell membrane. In adapting this model, we did not account for a difference between Genet’s sign convention for transmembrane charge and what is typically used in electrophysiology studies. After correcting for this difference, it is clear that the suggested theory does not explain our experimental findings. Although the distribution of mobile charges on each side of the bilayer does change with temperature, the net effect of these changes is predicted to decrease, rather than increase, the apparent bilayer capacitance. Therefore, alternative theories are needed to provide a complete understanding of thermal stimulation. For example, Plaksin et al.3 have proposed a complete theory that considers recent experimental measurements of bilayer thickness as a function of temperature4.

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  1. 1.

    Shapiro, M. G., Homma, K., Villarreal, S., Richter, C. P. & Bezanilla, F. Infrared light excites cells by changing their electrical capacitance. Nat. Commun. 3, 736 (2012).

  2. 2.

    Genet, S., Costalat, R. & Burger, J. A few comments on electrostatic interactions in cell physiology. Acta Biotheor. 48, 273–287 (2000).

  3. 3.

    Plaksin, M., Kimmel, E. & Shoham, S. Thermal transients excite neurons through universal intramembrane mechano-electrical effects. bioRxiv 111724 (2017).

  4. 4.

    Szekely, P. et al. Effect of temperature on the structure of charged membranes. J. Phys. Chem. B 115, 14501–14506 (2011).

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Author information


  1. Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, California Institute of Technology, 1200 E. California Blvd, Pasadena, CA, 91125, USA

    • Mikhail G. Shapiro
  2. Department of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery, Northwestern University, 303 E. Chicago Ave, Evanston, IL, 60611, USA

    • Kazuaki Homma
    •  & Claus-Peter Richter
  3. The Hugh Knowles Center for Clinical and Basic Science in Hearing and its Disorders, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, 60208, USA

    • Kazuaki Homma
    •  & Claus-Peter Richter
  4. Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Chicago, 929 E. 57th Street, GCIS W244, Chicago, IL, 60637, USA

    • Sebastian Villarreal
    •  & Francisco Bezanilla
  5. Department of Biomedical Engineering, Northwestern University, 2145 Sheridan Rd, Evanston, IL, 60208, USA

    • Claus-Peter Richter
  6. Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, Northwestern University, 2240 Campus Dr, Evanston, IL, 60208, USA

    • Claus-Peter Richter


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All authors contributed to writing this Correspondence and agree with its contents.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Mikhail G. Shapiro or Francisco Bezanilla.

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