Maintenance of normal potassium (K+) concentrations in the extra- and intracellular fluid is critical for cell function. Potassium homeostasis is achieved by ensuring proper distribution between extra- and intracellular fluid compartments and by matching potassium excretion with intake.

Dysregulation of potassium can have dangerous consequences. Due to the complexity of how the body processes extra- and intracellular K+ concentrations, each day has yet to be fully understood.

The University of Waterloo has developed a mathematical model that simulates how the body regulates potassium in the average person, both during potassium intake and depletion, using available biological data. Our body is constantly storing, consuming and discarding potassium to maintain proper levels because so many foods are rich in it; this process is known as maintaining potassium homeostasis.

Melissa M. Stadt, a Ph.D. student of applied mathematics, said: “Too much potassium in the body, or hyperkalemia, can be just as dangerous as hypokalemia, or too little. Dysregulation of potassium can lead to dangerous and potentially fatal consequences.”

By generating dozens of patients and predicting which ones will have hyper- or hypokalemia based on different controls, the model can be used for a virtual patient trial.

Anita Layton, Professor of Applied Mathematics and Canada 150 Research Chair in Mathematical Biology and Medicine, said: “Many of our models are pieces of a larger whole. This model is a new and exciting piece that helps us understand how our incredibly complex internal systems work.”

The model is especially exciting because it allows scientists to test the muscle-kidney crosstalk signaling hypothesis. When the mathematicians tested the hypothesis in their model, it more accurately reflected existing biological data related to potassium homeostasis, suggesting that muscle-kidney crosstalk could be an essential piece in the puzzle of potassium regulation.

Magazine reference:

  1. Melissa M. Stadt, Jessica Leete, et al. A mathematical model of potassium homeostasis: effect of feedforward and feedback controls. PLOS Computational Biology. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1010607