Reflections on the specificity of synaptic connections

Brain Res Rev. 2007 Oct;55(2):422-9. doi: 10.1016/j.brainresrev.2006.12.004. Epub 2006 Dec 22.


The principal focus of this treatise is the specificity of synaptic connectivity in the mammalian central nervous system. The occurrence of stereotypical patterns of connection at the macro level (e.g., the general consistency with which axonal pathways impinge on and originate within specific cortical areas and layers) implies that the cerebral cortex is a highly ordered structure. Order is seen also at the more micro level of synaptic connectivity, for instance, in the contrasting synaptic patterns of spiny vs. non-spiny neurons. Quantitative electron microscopic studies of synapses between identified neurons and correlative anatomical/electrophysiological investigations indicate that the high degree of order characterizing many aspects of cortical organization is mirrored by an equally ordered arrangement of synaptic connections between specific types of neurons. The recognition of recurring synaptic patterns has generated increased support for the notion of synaptic specificity as opposed to randomness, and we have begun now to understand the role of specificity in cortical function. At the core of cortical processing lie myriad possibilities for computation provided by the wealth of synaptic connections involving each neuron. Specificity, by limiting possibilities for connection, imposes an order on synaptic interactions even as processes of dynamic selection or synaptic remodeling ensure the constant formation and dissolution of cortical circuits. Collectively, these operations make maximal use of the richness of cortical synaptic connections to produce a highly flexible system, irrespective of the degree of hard-wiring, mutability, randomness or specificity that obtains for cortical wiring at any particular time. A brief, historical account of developments leading to our current understanding of cortical synaptic organization will precede the presentation of evidence for synaptic specificity.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Models, Neurological
  • Nerve Net / physiology
  • Nerve Net / ultrastructure
  • Neurons / cytology*
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Neurosciences / history
  • Synapses / physiology*
  • Synapses / ultrastructure