Synapses are highly plastic and are modified by changes in patterns of neural activity or sensory experience. Plasticity of cortical excitatory synapses is thought to be important for learning and memory, leading to alterations in sensory representations and cognitive maps. However, these changes must be coordinated across other synapses within local circuits to preserve neural coding schemes and the organization of excitatory and inhibitory inputs, i.e., excitatory-inhibitory balance. Recent studies indicate that inhibitory synapses are also plastic and are controlled directly by a large number of neuromodulators, particularly during episodes of learning. Many modulators transiently alter excitatory-inhibitory balance by decreasing inhibition, and thus disinhibition has emerged as a major mechanism by which neuromodulation might enable long-term synaptic modifications naturally. This review examines the relationships between neuromodulation and synaptic plasticity, focusing on the induction of long-term changes that collectively enhance cortical excitatory-inhibitory balance for improving perception and behavior.
Keywords: cortex; inhibition; neuromodulation; synaptic plasticity.