Since Cajal's first drawings of Golgi stained neurons, generations of researchers have been fascinated by the small protrusions, termed spines, studding many neuronal dendrites. Most excitatory synapses in the mammalian CNS are located on dendritic spines, making spines convenient proxies for excitatory synaptic presence. When in vivo imaging revealed that dendritic spines are dynamic structures, their addition and elimination were interpreted as excitatory synapse gain and loss, respectively. Spine imaging has since become a popular assay for excitatory circuit remodeling. In this review, we re-evaluate the validity of using spine dynamics as a straightforward reflection of circuit rewiring. Recent studies tracking both spines and synaptic markers in vivo reveal that 20% of spines lack PSD-95 and are short lived. Although they account for most spine dynamics, their remodeling is unlikely to impact long-term network structure. We discuss distinct roles that spine dynamics can play in circuit remodeling depending on synaptic content.
Keywords: PSD95; dendritic spines; excitatory synapses; in vivo spine imaging; structural remodeling; synapse formation.
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