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By Alan Macy, BIOPAC Systems, Inc.

In the context of human physiological recording, an electrode is a conductive probe which is used to sense the presence of biopotentials arising at points in the body. When biopotentials are generated in the body, they can be sensed using a differential voltage amplifier. When a biopotential source activates, electrons are moved within the volume of the source thus creating a voltage potential difference (positive to negative) across the volume of the source. Biopotential sources are continually changing in the body, so the associated differential voltage potentials change too.

Electrodes establish an equipotential area when attached to a location on or in the body. An equipotential area means that anywhere on the surface area of the electrode the potential (voltage) will be the same. This is because electrodes are substantially more conductive than the surrounding tissue. To record a biopotential signal, two electrodes are required. The pair of electrodes will measure the voltage which is impressed between the two equipotential areas created by the electrodes.

Biopotential recording electrodes are of two types, namely invasive and noninvasive. Invasive electrodes are designed to sense biopotentials inside the body, meaning they are inserted inside the body, past the skin boundary. Historically, invasive electrodes have been designed as needles or wires to better penetrate the skin. By controlling the conductive and insulating areas of the needle or wire, the electrode can be used to sense biopotentials originating at any depth in the body volume. If the invasive electrode is to be inserted into the body for a long time, then the electrode might take a different shape, such as a conductive disk which can be sutured into place.

Noninvasive electrodes are designed to sense biopotentials which manifest on the outside skin surface. These kinds of electrodes do not penetrate the skin surface layer. Because the body is a volume conductor, biopotentials originating anywhere in the body travel to the entire skin surface area. As an example, a polarized biopotential wave is generated by the heart during the course of each beat. This signal is easily detectable between any two locations on the body’s skin surface that are physically oriented to different sides of the heart.

In practice, it’s best to collect biopotential data as near to the biopotential generating site as possible for the best recording. This is because the body generates a large number of biopotential signals, sourced from a variety of excitable cells. Because the body is conductive, a myriad of these signals will superimpose at any body recording location. As the distance grows between a particular source and the differential recording location, the source signal attenuates. Sources, that are subject to a range of attenuation, will simply add to the desired signal being measured, as they are included in the volume conduction path defined by the differential biopotential recording.

When collecting biopotential data from surface electrodes, the contact area of the electrode has an impact on the frequency and amplitude components recorded in the biopotential. Because the body volume is relatively conductive, increased electrode surface area has a tendency to reduce biopotential amplitudes and suppress higher frequency components. This happens because multiple, and often uncorrelated, biopotential sources in the body can act in random opposition as the various biopotentials superimpose in the conductive body volume and then express on the skin surface. A biopotential averaging process takes place in the body tissue volume and an aspect of the averaged signal is reflected on the skin surface area. This biopotential signal averaging quality increases in scope as the size the measurement surface electrodes increases.

If a biopotential electrode is reduced in size and then inserted into the body near the location of interest, then measured signals will typically increase in amplitude and frequency components. These kinds of electrodes are called needle or wire electrodes and typically have an insulating needle shaft with a conductive tip. Despite certain benefits of needle electrodes, complications can arise when breaking the skin barrier and inserting foreign objects into a subject’s body. Needle electrodes can be difficult to use because they have smaller surface area than surface electrodes. Furthermore, smaller contact surface area always means that the electrode contact impedance is higher. Very high contact impedance, typically in excess of 1 Mohm, specifies the need for excellent lead shielding and specialized input amplifier characteristics.

Biopotential measurements from surface electrodes on the body have material harmonic content of less than 500 Hz. Nearly all of the signal power which can be collected from surface electrodes is between DC and 500 Hz. If the electrode is smaller, such as a conductive-tipped needle, and inserted through the skin surface to near the biopotential of interest, biopotential signal frequencies can exceed 10,000 Hz.

For more information on BIOPAC’s wide range of tools for recording, displaying, and analyzing biopotential measurements from human and animal subjects, visit BIOPAC’s electrocardiograpy, electromyography,  or electroencephalograpy pages and view BIOPAC’s full line of electrodes, amplifiers, and wearable, wireless transmitters and loggers.

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