Memory storage involves activity-dependent strengthening of synaptic transmission, a process termed long-term potentiation (LTP). The late phase of LTP is thought to encode long-term memory and involves structural processes that enlarge the synapse. Hence, understanding how synapse size is graded provides fundamental information about the information storage capability of synapses. Recent work using electron microscopy (EM) to quantify synapse dimensions has suggested that synapses may structurally encode as many as 26 functionally distinct states, which correspond to a series of proportionally spaced synapse sizes. Other recent evidence using super-resolution microscopy has revealed that synapses are composed of stereotyped nanoclusters of α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid (AMPA) receptors and scaffolding proteins; furthermore, synapse size varies linearly with the number of nanoclusters. Here we have sought to develop a model of synapse structure and growth that is consistent with both the EM and super-resolution data. We argue that synapses are composed of modules consisting of matrix material and potentially one nanocluster. LTP induction can add a trans-synaptic nanocluster to a module, thereby converting a silent module to an AMPA functional module. LTP can also add modules by a linear process, thereby producing an approximately 10-fold gradation in synapse size and strength.
This article is part of the themed issue ‘Integrating Hebbian and homeostatic plasticity’.
One contribution of 16 to a discussion meeting issue ‘Integrating Hebbian and homeostatic plasticity’.
- Accepted September 5, 2016.
- © 2017 The Author(s)
Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.