Thinking about the nerve impulse: The prospects for the development of a comprehensive account of nerve impulse propagation

Linda Holland, Henk W. de Regt, Benjamin Drukarch*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Currently, a scientific debate is ongoing about modeling nerve impulse propagation. One of the models discussed is the celebrated Hodgkin-Huxley model of the action potential, which is central to the electricity-centered conception of the nerve impulse that dominates contemporary neuroscience. However, this model cannot represent the nerve impulse completely, since it does not take into account non-electrical manifestations of the nerve impulse for which there is ample experimental evidence. As a result, alternative models of nerve impulse propagation have been proposed in contemporary (neuro)scientific literature. One of these models is the Heimburg-Jackson model, according to which the nerve impulse is an electromechanical density pulse in the neural membrane. This model is usually contrasted with the Hodgkin-Huxley model and is supposed to potentially be able to replace the latter. However, instead of contrasting these models of nerve impulse propagation, another approach integrates these models in a general unifying model. This general unifying model, the Engelbrecht model, is developed to unify all relevant manifestations of the nerve impulse and their interaction(s). Here, we want to contribute to the debate about modeling nerve impulse propagation by conceptually analyzing the Engelbrecht model. Combining the results of this conceptual analysis with insights from philosophy of science, we make recommendations for the study of nerve impulse propagation. The first conclusion of this analysis is that attempts to develop models that represent the nerve impulse accurately and completely appear unfeasible. Instead, models are and should be used as tools to study nerve impulse propagation for varying purposes, representing the nerve impulse accurately and completely enough to achieve the specified goals. The second conclusion is that integrating distinct models into a general unifying model that provides a consistent picture of nerve impulse propagation is impossible due to the distinct purposes for which they are developed and the conflicting assumptions these purposes often require. Instead of explaining nerve impulse propagation with a single general unifying model, it appears advisable to explain this complex phenomenon using a ‘mosaic’ framework of models in which each model provides a partial explanation of nerve impulse propagation.

Original languageEnglish
Article number208
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
JournalFrontiers in Cellular Neuroscience
Issue numberMay
Publication statusPublished - 14 May 2019


  • Action potential
  • Complete representation
  • Comprehensive framework
  • Comprehensive modeling
  • Hodgkin-Huxley model
  • Model as tool
  • Nerve impulse propagation
  • Soliton model


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