University Crest The University of Sydney
   Discipline of Physiology   

Membrane Potential

All cells manifest an electrical potential difference across their cell membrane. This membrane potential (often given the symbol Em is small in magnitude compared to voltages we encounter in electrical power sources, but is extremely important to the cell. Physiologists have developed a precise definition of membrane potential, and the potentials can be measured reasonably accurately and reproducibly.


The membrane potential is transmembrane electrical potential difference expressed inside with respect to outside. Using the outside as the reference potential makes sense as all cells share that outside. This choice of direction (or sign convention) affects other measures of electrical properties, notably transmembrane current, which are all expressed inside with respect to outside. Thus our current convention is that current crossing the membrane from inside to outside is positive.

Typical values

Expressed with the above convention, all cells have membrane potentials which are inside negative. The values observed vary a little from cell to cell and across different species, but for nerve and muscle cells that are very well studied, a typical value is -80mV (ranging from -90mV to -60mV).


The membrane potential is a manifestation of a small separation of charge across the lipid bilayer of the membrane. The lipid is the dielectric of a parallel plate capacitor in which the salty (conductive) solutions separated by the membrane are the plates of the capacitor. The charges involved are all ions, and the charge separation comes about through ion movements resulting directly or indirectly from the action of ion pumps. (see Why do cells have membrane potentials? for a discussion of why this may be so.)


Although the membrane potentials observed in cells are less than 1/10th of a volt, the electrical field is very large. Changes in this field, brought about through changes in membrane potential can have marked affects on membrane proteins that themselves carry charges. Such influence on membrane proteins can markedly change cell activity.

Changes in Membrane Potential

Any process that changes the separation of charge across the membrane will change membrane potential. These processes can be natural or experimental, and an experimental one serves to illustrate the phenomenon well. It is known as current injection, and schematically can be represented as follows:

The microelectrode is a very fine glass tube which can penetrate the membrane, The solution inside the electrode (usually concentrated KCl) will then be connected to the inside of the cell and can be used to carry current into the cell, hence the name current injection. For this to happen the circuit must be completed: the switch must be closed, and the current must go to the reference electrode outside the cell by passing outwards through the membrane. This is shown in the following diagram.

The positive charges reaching the inside of the membrane will tend to reduce the inside negativity, and the positive charge carried away from the outer surface will also do so. There are several important points to note:

  1. Although termed current injection the current is outward from the membrane perspective. There must be a circuit: in through the electrode, out through the cell.
  2. The outward current will tend to make the membrane potential become less negative. In other words the positive (outward) transmembrane current will tend to make the membrane potential move in a positive direction.
  3. If the current could be adjusted in magnitude it could be made large enough to eliminate the original charge separation altogether. This particular case is very important in many attempts to understand membrane phenomena because the membrane potential is temporarily eliminated from influencing ion movements, merely because it is zero.


©D.F. Davey, Department of Physiology, University of Sydney
Last updated 8 March 1998