Short-term synaptic plasticity

Annu Rev Physiol. 2002:64:355-405. doi: 10.1146/annurev.physiol.64.092501.114547.


Synaptic transmission is a dynamic process. Postsynaptic responses wax and wane as presynaptic activity evolves. This prominent characteristic of chemical synaptic transmission is a crucial determinant of the response properties of synapses and, in turn, of the stimulus properties selected by neural networks and of the patterns of activity generated by those networks. This review focuses on synaptic changes that result from prior activity in the synapse under study, and is restricted to short-term effects that last for at most a few minutes. Forms of synaptic enhancement, such as facilitation, augmentation, and post-tetanic potentiation, are usually attributed to effects of a residual elevation in presynaptic [Ca(2+)]i, acting on one or more molecular targets that appear to be distinct from the secretory trigger responsible for fast exocytosis and phasic release of transmitter to single action potentials. We discuss the evidence for this hypothesis, and the origins of the different kinetic phases of synaptic enhancement, as well as the interpretation of statistical changes in transmitter release and roles played by other factors such as alterations in presynaptic Ca(2+) influx or postsynaptic levels of [Ca(2+)]i. Synaptic depression dominates enhancement at many synapses. Depression is usually attributed to depletion of some pool of readily releasable vesicles, and various forms of the depletion model are discussed. Depression can also arise from feedback activation of presynaptic receptors and from postsynaptic processes such as receptor desensitization. In addition, glial-neuronal interactions can contribute to short-term synaptic plasticity. Finally, we summarize the recent literature on putative molecular players in synaptic plasticity and the effects of genetic manipulations and other modulatory influences.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Calcium / physiology
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Synapses / physiology*


  • Calcium