Morphological changes in dendritic spines associated with long-term synaptic plasticity

Annu Rev Neurosci. 2001:24:1071-89. doi: 10.1146/annurev.neuro.24.1.1071.


Dendritic spines are morphological specializations that receive synaptic inputs and compartmentalize calcium. In spite of a long history of research, the specific function of spines is still not well understood. Here we review the current status of the relation between morphological changes in spines and synaptic plasticity. Since Cajal and Tanzi proposed that changes in the structure of the brain might occur as a consequence of experience, the search for the morphological correlates of learning has constituted one of the central questions in neuroscience. Although there are scores of studies that encompass this wide field in many species, in this review we focus on experimental work that has analyzed the morphological consequences of hippocampal long-term potentiation (LTP) in rodents. Over the past two decades many studies have demonstrated changes in the morphology of spines after LTP, such as enlargements of the spine head and shortenings of the spine neck. Biophysically, these changes translate into an increase in the synaptic current injected at the spine, as well as shortening of the time constant for calcium compartmentalization. In addition, recent online studies using time-lapse imaging have reported increased spinogenesis. The currently available data show a strong correlation between synaptic plasticity and morphological changes in spines, although at the same time, there is no evidence that these morphological changes are necessary or sufficient for the induction or maintenance of LTP. Still, they highlight once more how form and function go hand in hand in the central nervous system.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dendrites / physiology*
  • Dendrites / ultrastructure*
  • Hippocampus / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology
  • Long-Term Potentiation / physiology*
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology
  • Synapses / physiology*
  • Synapses / ultrastructure