Electrical advantages of dendritic spines

PLoS One. 2012;7(4):e36007. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0036007. Epub 2012 Apr 20.


Many neurons receive excitatory glutamatergic input almost exclusively onto dendritic spines. In the absence of spines, the amplitudes and kinetics of excitatory postsynaptic potentials (EPSPs) at the site of synaptic input are highly variable and depend on dendritic location. We hypothesized that dendritic spines standardize the local geometry at the site of synaptic input, thereby reducing location-dependent variability of local EPSP properties. We tested this hypothesis using computational models of simplified and morphologically realistic spiny neurons that allow direct comparison of EPSPs generated on spine heads with EPSPs generated on dendritic shafts at the same dendritic locations. In all morphologies tested, spines greatly reduced location-dependent variability of local EPSP amplitude and kinetics, while having minimal impact on EPSPs measured at the soma. Spine-dependent standardization of local EPSP properties persisted across a range of physiologically relevant spine neck resistances, and in models with variable neck resistances. By reducing the variability of local EPSPs, spines standardized synaptic activation of NMDA receptors and voltage-gated calcium channels. Furthermore, spines enhanced activation of NMDA receptors and facilitated the generation of NMDA spikes and axonal action potentials in response to synaptic input. Finally, we show that dynamic regulation of spine neck geometry can preserve local EPSP properties following plasticity-driven changes in synaptic strength, but is inefficient in modifying the amplitude of EPSPs in other cellular compartments. These observations suggest that one function of dendritic spines is to standardize local EPSP properties throughout the dendritic tree, thereby allowing neurons to use similar voltage-sensitive postsynaptic mechanisms at all dendritic locations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology
  • Computer Simulation
  • Dendritic Spines / physiology*
  • Electric Stimulation
  • Excitatory Postsynaptic Potentials / physiology*
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate / physiology
  • Synapses / physiology
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology*


  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate