The malleable brain: plasticity of neural circuits and behavior - a review from students to students

J Neurochem. 2017 Sep;142(6):790-811. doi: 10.1111/jnc.14107. Epub 2017 Aug 8.


One of the most intriguing features of the brain is its ability to be malleable, allowing it to adapt continually to changes in the environment. Specific neuronal activity patterns drive long-lasting increases or decreases in the strength of synaptic connections, referred to as long-term potentiation and long-term depression, respectively. Such phenomena have been described in a variety of model organisms, which are used to study molecular, structural, and functional aspects of synaptic plasticity. This review originated from the first International Society for Neurochemistry (ISN) and Journal of Neurochemistry (JNC) Flagship School held in Alpbach, Austria (Sep 2016), and will use its curriculum and discussions as a framework to review some of the current knowledge in the field of synaptic plasticity. First, we describe the role of plasticity during development and the persistent changes of neural circuitry occurring when sensory input is altered during critical developmental stages. We then outline the signaling cascades resulting in the synthesis of new plasticity-related proteins, which ultimately enable sustained changes in synaptic strength. Going beyond the traditional understanding of synaptic plasticity conceptualized by long-term potentiation and long-term depression, we discuss system-wide modifications and recently unveiled homeostatic mechanisms, such as synaptic scaling. Finally, we describe the neural circuits and synaptic plasticity mechanisms driving associative memory and motor learning. Evidence summarized in this review provides a current view of synaptic plasticity in its various forms, offers new insights into the underlying mechanisms and behavioral relevance, and provides directions for future research in the field of synaptic plasticity. Read the Editorial Highlight for this article on page 788. Cover Image for this issue: doi: 10.1111/jnc.13815.

Keywords: Hebbian plasticity; associative learning; critical period; homeostatic plasticity; motorskill learning; synaptic plasticity.

Publication types

  • Review