Electrical microstimulation has been widely used to artificially activate neural circuits on fast time scales. Despite the ubiquity of its use, little is known about precisely how it activates neural pathways. Current is typically delivered to neural tissue in a manner that provides a locally balanced injection of positive and negative charge, resulting in negligible net charge delivery to avoid the neurotoxic effects of charge accumulation. Modeling studies have suggested that the most common approach, using a temporally symmetric current pulse waveform as the base unit of stimulation, results in preferential activation of axons, causing diffuse activation of neurons relative to the stimulation site. Altering waveform shape and using an asymmetric current pulse waveform theoretically reverses this bias and preferentially activates cell bodies, providing increased specificity. In separate studies, measurements of downstream cortical activation from sub-cortical microstimulation are consistent with this hypothesis, as are recent measurements of behavioral detection threshold currents from cortical microstimulation. Here, we compared the behavioral and electrophysiological effects of symmetric vs. asymmetric current waveform shape in cortical microstimulation. Using a go/no-go behavioral task, we found that microstimulation waveform shape significantly shifts psychometric performance, where a larger current pulse was necessary when applying an asymmetric waveform to elicit the same behavioral response, across a large range of behaviorally relevant current amplitudes. Using voltage-sensitive dye imaging of cortex in anesthetized animals with simultaneous cortical microstimulation, we found that altering microstimulation waveform shape shifted the cortical activation in a manner that mirrored the behavioral results. Taken together, these results are consistent with the hypothesis that asymmetric stimulation preferentially activates cell bodies, albeit at a higher threshold, as compared to symmetric stimulation. These findings demonstrate the sensitivity of the pathway to varying electrical stimulation parameters and underscore the importance of designing electrical stimuli for optimal activation of neural circuits.
Bari, B. A., Ollerenshaw, D. R., Millard, D. C., Wang, Q., & Stanley, G. B. (2013). Behavioral and electrophysiological effects of cortical Microstimulation parameters. PLoS ONE, 8(12). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0082170