Space (Length) Constant, Lambda, in Neuronal Signaling
The space (length) constant λ with λ = (Rmd/(4Ra))1/2 is a measure of steady-state voltage decay with distance in a cell. Quantitatively λ is the distance over which the steady-state voltage decays to 1/e or 37 % of its value at the origin in a semi-infinite cable.
The importance of λ is that it determines how spatially separated inputs are integrated (spatial summation). If λ is small, then spatially separated inputs are unlikely to sum because voltage will decay significantly over the distance between the inputs, but if λ is large, inputs will not decay as much with distance allowing summation to occur. Given the formula for λ, spatial summation is more likely to occur when diameter or membrane resistivity is large or axial resistivity is small.
One must be careful not to equate quantitatively the steady-state voltage decrement with distance for the semi-infinite cylinder with voltage decay in finite cylinders. For finite cylinders steady-state voltage decay with distance will depend strongly on both the boundary conditions and the length of the cylinders (see entry “Cable Equation”), and for transient inputs voltage decay with distance will be very different. Conductance changes associated with transient inputs may make λ variable in time; depending on the level of background synaptic activity, λ may be large at one moment and small at another causing effective spatial integration to vary widely.
- Rall W (1977) Core conductor theory and cable properties of neurons. In: Handbook of physiology. The nervous system. Cellular biology of neurons, sect 1, vol I, pt 1, chap 3. American Physiological Society, Bethesda, pp 39–97Google Scholar