Theoretical calculation of the dielectric constant of a bilayer membrane

W. Huang, D. G. Levitt

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The dielectric constant (epsilon) and refractive index (n) of a bilayer lipid membrane is determined from the known values of the polarizabilities of the carbon-carbon and carbon-hydrogen bonds. It is assumed that the hydrocarbon chains are hexagonally arranged in an all-trans conformation perpendicular to the plane of the membrane. The only variable in the calculation is the average separation between the chains and the theory relates epsilon to this separation. The calculation and results differ significantly from those presented in a 1968 publication by Ohki. It is shown that a thin membrane is not homogeneously polarized by the applied field. This effect is analysed and the dependence of epsilon on the membrane thickness is determined. The theoretical results are in good quantitative agreement with experimental measurements on bulk paraffins and on oriented multilayers of saturated fatty acids. The most important conclusion is that the dielectric constant for an applied field perpendicular to the membrane (which is the appropriate value for capacitance measurements) differs by only a few percent from the value for the macroscopic (bulk) liquid hydrocarbon. Thus the dielectric constant of a bilayer membrane can be approximated by the value for the appropriate bulk hydrocarbon.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)111-128
Number of pages18
JournalBiophysical journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1977
Externally publishedYes


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