Focal motility determines the geometry of dendritic spines

Neuroscience. 2003;121(1):39-49. doi: 10.1016/s0306-4522(03)00405-6.


The geometry of dendritic spines has a major impact on signal transmission at excitatory synapses. To study it in detail we raised transgenic mice expressing an intrinsic green fluorescent protein-based plasma membrane marker that directly visualizes the cell surface of living neurons throughout the brain. Confocal imaging of developing hippocampal slices showed that as dendrites mature they switch from producing labile filopodia and polymorphic spine precursors to dendritic spines with morphologies similar to those reported from studies of adult brain. In images of live dendrites these mature spines are fundamentally stable structures, but retain morphological plasticity in the form of actin-rich lamellipodia at the tips of spine heads. In live mature dendrites up to 50% of spines had cup-shaped heads with prominent terminal lamellipodia whose motility produced constant alterations in the detailed geometry of the synaptic contact zone. The partial enveloping of presynaptic terminals by these cup-shaped spines coupled with rapid actin-driven changes in their shape may operate to fine-tune receptor distribution and neurotransmitter cross-talk at excitatory synapses.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Movement / physiology*
  • Chickens
  • Dendrites / physiology*
  • Dendrites / ultrastructure*
  • Hippocampus / physiology
  • Hippocampus / ultrastructure
  • Humans
  • In Vitro Techniques
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Mice, Transgenic
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology