Synaptic Plasticity Forms and Functions

Annu Rev Neurosci. 2020 Jul 8;43:95-117. doi: 10.1146/annurev-neuro-090919-022842. Epub 2020 Feb 19.


Synaptic plasticity, the activity-dependent change in neuronal connection strength, has long been considered an important component of learning and memory. Computational and engineering work corroborate the power of learning through the directed adjustment of connection weights. Here we review the fundamental elements of four broadly categorized forms of synaptic plasticity and discuss their functional capabilities and limitations. Although standard, correlation-based, Hebbian synaptic plasticity has been the primary focus of neuroscientists for decades, it is inherently limited. Three-factor plasticity rules supplement Hebbian forms with neuromodulation and eligibility traces, while true supervised types go even further by adding objectives and instructive signals. Finally, a recently discovered hippocampal form of synaptic plasticity combines the above elements, while leaving behind the primary Hebbian requirement. We suggest that the effort to determine the neural basis of adaptive behavior could benefit from renewed experimental and theoretical investigation of more powerful directed types of synaptic plasticity.

Keywords: dendrites; eligibility traces; learning; memory; neuromodulation; synapses.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Synapses / physiology*
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology*