Skip to main content

An increase in the extracellular potassium concentration can cause seizures


Epilepsy is a neurological disorder characterized by recurrent seizures. It is important for the development of patient treatments to understand the mechanisms underlying this complex neurological disease. Experimental data shows that an increase in the extracellular potassium concentration, [K+]0, can support the generation of seizures and growth in seizures frequency and propagation velocity [1]. It is unclear if seizures are caused by the increase in [K+]0 or seizures cause the [K+]0 increase.


Using a single column model neural mass model of pyramidal cell population [2], we explore how the change in [K+]0 affects the model output. The model represents the activity of approximately 105 neurons and has four interacting neural populations: pyramidal neurons, excitatory, slow- and fast-inhibitory neurons. The model output is interpreted as representing the recorded EEG signal. A static nonlinear function (a sigmoid) of the model converts a postsynaptic potential into an average spiking rate for each neural population. We fit data from [3] to different forms of the sigmoid corresponding to different concentration of [K+]0. Simulations were run with different sigmoid parameters while other parameters of the model are fixed to produce normal background activity (non-seizure dynamics). To classify the model output as a particular neural activity type, a power spectral density analysis is used and the types were compared to those in [2].


Results show that a [K+]0 increase from 5 to 13 mM causes the neural dynamics to transit from Type 1 (normal background activity) to Type 6 (slow quasi-sinusoidal activity) to Type 3 (sustained discharge of spikes) to Type 1, and then to Type 5 (low-voltage rapid activity).


Our results confirm that a [K+]0 increase can generate seizures. This may have implications on the development of the effective treatments for epilepsy patients. It is left for future research to investigate whether changes in [K+]0 can affect the frequency or propagation velocity of seizures. These investigations will be carried out using multiple interconnected columns.


  1. Jensen MS, Yaari Y: Role of intrinsic burst firing, potassium accumulation, and electrical coupling in the elevated potassium model of hippocampal epilepsy. J Neurophys. 1997, 77: 1224-1233.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Wendling F, Bartolomei F, Bellanger JJ, Chauvel P: Epileptic fast activity can be explained by a model of impaired GABAergic dendritic inhibition. Europ J Neurosci. 2002, 9: 1499-1508.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Zandt BJ, Visser S, van Putte MJAN, ten Haken B: A neural mass model based on single cell dynamics to model pathophysiology. J Comput Neurosci. 2014, 37: 549-568.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

Download references


This research was supported by the Australian Research Council (DE120102210). The Bionics Institute acknowledges the support it receives from the Victorian Government through its Operational Infrastructure Support Program.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Tatiana Kameneva.

Rights and permissions

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated in a credit line to the data.

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Ying, T., Grayden, D.B., Burkitt, A.N. et al. An increase in the extracellular potassium concentration can cause seizures. BMC Neurosci 16 (Suppl 1), P113 (2015).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • DOI: