Quantal Fluctuations in Central Mammalian Synapses: Functional Role of Vesicular Docking Sites

Physiol Rev. 2017 Oct 1;97(4):1403-1430. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00032.2016.


Quantal fluctuations are an integral part of synaptic signaling. At the frog neuromuscular junction, Bernard Katz proposed that quantal fluctuations originate at "reactive sites" where specific structures of the presynaptic membrane interact with synaptic vesicles. However, the physical nature of reactive sites has remained unclear, both at the frog neuromuscular junction and at central synapses. Many central synapses, called simple synapses, are small structures containing a single presynaptic active zone and a single postsynaptic density of receptors. Several lines of evidence indicate that simple synapses may release several synaptic vesicles in response to a single action potential. However, in some synapses at least, each release event activates a significant fraction of the postsynaptic receptors, giving rise to a sublinear relation between vesicular release and postsynaptic current. Partial receptor saturation as well as synaptic jitter gives to simple synapse signaling the appearance of a binary process. Recent investigations of simple synapses indicate that the number of released vesicles follows binomial statistics, with a maximum reflecting the number of docking sites present in the active zone. These results suggest that at central synapses, vesicular docking sites represent the reactive sites proposed by Katz. The macromolecular architecture and molecular composition of docking sites are presently investigated with novel combinations of techniques. It is proposed that variations in docking site numbers are central in defining intersynaptic variability and that docking site occupancy is a key parameter regulating short-term synaptic plasticity.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Neuromuscular Junction / physiology
  • Synaptic Transmission*
  • Synaptic Vesicles / physiology*