Filopodia: A Rapid Structural Plasticity Substrate for Fast Learning

Front Synaptic Neurosci. 2017 Jun 20;9:12. doi: 10.3389/fnsyn.2017.00012. eCollection 2017.


Formation of new synapses between neurons is an essential mechanism for learning and encoding memories. The vast majority of excitatory synapses occur on dendritic spines, therefore, the growth dynamics of spines is strongly related to the plasticity timescales. Especially in the early stages of the developing brain, there is an abundant number of long, thin and motile protrusions (i.e., filopodia), which develop in timescales of seconds and minutes. Because of their unique morphology and motility, it has been suggested that filopodia can have a dual role in both spinogenesis and environmental sampling of potential axonal partners. I propose that filopodia can lower the threshold and reduce the time to form new dendritic spines and synapses, providing a substrate for fast learning. Based on this proposition, the functional role of filopodia during brain development is discussed in relation to learning and memory. Specifically, it is hypothesized that the postnatal brain starts with a single-stage memory system with filopodia playing a significant role in rapid structural plasticity along with the stability provided by the mushroom-shaped spines. Following the maturation of the hippocampus, this highly-plastic unitary system transitions to a two-stage memory system, which consists of a plastic temporary store and a long-term stable store. In alignment with these architectural changes, it is posited that after brain maturation, filopodia-based structural plasticity will be preserved in specific areas, which are involved in fast learning (e.g., hippocampus in relation to episodic memory). These propositions aim to introduce a unifying framework for a diversity of phenomena in the brain such as synaptogenesis, pruning and memory consolidation.

Keywords: dendritic spines; fast learning; filopodia; memory; plasticity; pruning; spine growth; synaptogenesis.