Long-term potentiation (LTP) and long-term depression (LTD) are the two major forms of long-lasting synaptic plasticity in the mammalian neurons, and are directly related to higher brain functions such as learning and memory. Experimentally, they are characterized by a change in the strength of a synaptic connection induced by repetitive and properly patterned stimulation protocols. Although many important details of the molecular events leading to LTP and LTD are known, experimenters often report problems in using standard induction protocols to obtain consistent results, especially for LTD in vivo. We hypothesize that a possible source of confusion in interpreting the results, from any given experiment on synaptic plasticity, can be the intrinsic limitation of the experimental techniques, which cannot take into account the actual state and peak conductance of the synapses before the conditioning protocol. In this article, we investigate the possibility that the same experimental protocol may result in different consequences (e.g., LTD instead of LTP), according to the initial conditions of the stimulated synapses, and can generate confusing results. Using biophysical models of synaptic plasticity and hippocampal CA1 pyramidal neurons, we study how, why, and to what extent the phenomena observed at the soma after induction of LTP/LTD reflects the actual (local) synaptic state. The model and the results suggest a physiologically plausible explanation for why LTD induction is experimentally difficult to obtain. They also suggest experimentally testable predictions on the stimulation protocols that may be more effective.
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