In previous studies, we observed a transient increase in dendritic spine frequency in the molecular layer of the dentate gyrus at 6h following passive avoidance training [O'Malley A., O'Connell C. and Regan C. M. (1998) Neuroscience 87, 607-613]. To determine if a similar change is associated with spatial forms of learning, we have estimated time-dependent modulations of spine number in the dentate gyrus of the adult rat following water maze training. All animals exhibited significant reductions in the latency to locate the platform over the five training sessions of the single trial (median and interquartile ranges of 60, 8 versus 8, 3 s for trials 1 and 5, respectively) and this improved performance was retained just prior to killing at the 6h post-training time. The unbiased dissector stereological procedure was used to estimate spine number in serial pairs of ultrathin coronal sections obtained at a point 3.3 mm caudal of Bregma. This analysis revealed a significant learning-associated increase in spine number at the 6h post-training time (1.32+/-0.18 spines/microm(3)) as it was not observed in paired controls exposed to the water maze for a similar swim-time (0.66+/-0.11 spines/microm(3)). The increase was transient as spine number returned to control levels at the 72 h post-training time. These spine frequency changes are proposed to reflect increased synapse turnover rate and concomitant change in connectivity pattern in the processing of information for long-term storage.