Behavioral experience alters the strength of neuronal connections in adult neocortex. These changes in synaptic strength are thought to be central to experience-dependent plasticity, learning, and memory. However, it is not known how changes in synaptic transmission between neurons become persistent, thereby enabling the storage of previous experience. A long-standing hypothesis is that altered synaptic strength is maintained by structural modifications to synapses. However, the extent of synaptic modifications and the changes in neurotransmission that the modifications support remain unclear. To address these questions, we recorded from pairs of synaptically connected layer 2/3 pyramidal neurons in the barrel cortex and imaged their contacts with high-resolution confocal microscopy after altering sensory experience by whisker trimming. Excitatory connections strengthened by experience exhibited larger axonal varicosities, dendritic spines, and interposed contact zones. Electron microscopy showed that contact zone size was strongly correlated with postsynaptic density area. Therefore, our findings indicate that whole synapses are larger at strengthened connections. Synaptic transmission was both stronger and more reliable following experience-dependent synapse enlargement. Hence, sensory experience modified both presynaptic and postsynaptic function. Our findings suggest that the enlargement of synaptic contacts is an integral part of long-lasting strengthening of cortical connections and, hence, of information storage in the neocortex.
Keywords: barrel cortex; confocal microscopy; electrophysiology; experience-dependent plasticity; structural plasticity.