Synaptic size dynamics as an effectively stochastic process

PLoS Comput Biol. 2014 Oct 2;10(10):e1003846. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003846. eCollection 2014 Oct.


Long-term, repeated measurements of individual synaptic properties have revealed that synapses can undergo significant directed and spontaneous changes over time scales of minutes to weeks. These changes are presumably driven by a large number of activity-dependent and independent molecular processes, yet how these processes integrate to determine the totality of synaptic size remains unknown. Here we propose, as an alternative to detailed, mechanistic descriptions, a statistical approach to synaptic size dynamics. The basic premise of this approach is that the integrated outcome of the myriad of processes that drive synaptic size dynamics are effectively described as a combination of multiplicative and additive processes, both of which are stochastic and taken from distributions parametrically affected by physiological signals. We show that this seemingly simple model, known in probability theory as the Kesten process, can generate rich dynamics which are qualitatively similar to the dynamics of individual glutamatergic synapses recorded in long-term time-lapse experiments in ex-vivo cortical networks. Moreover, we show that this stochastic model, which is insensitive to many of its underlying details, quantitatively captures the distributions of synaptic sizes measured in these experiments, the long-term stability of such distributions and their scaling in response to pharmacological manipulations. Finally, we show that the average kinetics of new postsynaptic density formation measured in such experiments is also faithfully captured by the same model. The model thus provides a useful framework for characterizing synapse size dynamics at steady state, during initial formation of such steady states, and during their convergence to new steady states following perturbations. These findings show the strength of a simple low dimensional statistical model to quantitatively describe synapse size dynamics as the integrated result of many underlying complex processes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Cerebral Cortex / cytology
  • Computational Biology
  • Female
  • Male
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Rats
  • Stochastic Processes
  • Synapses / physiology*

Grants and funding

This work was funded by the Israel Science Foundation \ 1566/11 (NB) and 1038/09 (NEZ), and the European Union Seventh Framework Programme HEALTH-F2-1009-241498 (NEZ). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.