Electric fields are novel determinants of human macrophage functions

Joseph I Hoare, Ann M Rajnicek, Colin D McCaig, Robert N Barker, Heather M Wilson* (Corresponding Author)

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

81 Citations (Scopus)


Macrophages are key cells in inflammation and repair, and their activity requires close regulation. The characterization of cues coordinating macrophage function has focused on biologic and soluble mediators, with little known about their responses to physical stimuli, such as the electrical fields that are generated naturally in injured tissue and which accelerate wound healing. To address this gap in understanding, we tested how properties of human monocyte-derived macrophages are regulated by applied electrical fields, similar in strengths to those established naturally. With the use of live-cell video microscopy, we show that macrophage migration is directed anodally by electrical fields as low as 5 mV/mm and is electrical field strength dependent, with effects peaking ∼300 mV/mm. Monocytes, as macrophage precursors, migrate in the opposite, cathodal direction. Strikingly, we show for the first time that electrical fields significantly enhance macrophage phagocytic uptake of a variety of targets, including carboxylate beads, apoptotic neutrophils, and the nominal opportunist pathogen Candida albicans, which engage different classes of surface receptors. These electrical field-induced functional changes are accompanied by clustering of phagocytic receptors, enhanced PI3K and ERK activation, mobilization of intracellular calcium, and actin polarization. Electrical fields also modulate cytokine production selectively and can augment some effects of conventional polarizing stimuli on cytokine secretion. Taken together, electrical signals have been identified as major contributors to the coordination and regulation of important human macrophage functions, including those essential for microbial clearance and healing. Our results open up a new area of research into effects of naturally occurring and clinically applied electrical fields in conditions where macrophage activity is critical.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1141-1151
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Leukocyte Biology
Issue number6
Early online date30 Dec 2015
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2016

Bibliographical note


This work was supported by Kidney Research UK (Grant Number RP1/2012). J.I.H. was supported by an Institute of Medical Sciences University studentship. The authors thank the staff of the Aberdeen Microscopy and Histology Core Facility for advice and technical assistance. The authors also thank Christina E. Arnold for guidance in initially setting up EFs and Jessica Becker, Jennifer Mitchell, and Robert Petrie for technical assistance in the laboratory. The authors acknowledge and are grateful to all volunteers for donating blood for macrophage and neutrophil isolation.


  • human macrophage
  • direct current electric field
  • phagocytosis
  • migration
  • cytokines
  • wound repair


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