Electron Microscopic 3D-Reconstruction of Dendritic Spines in Cultured Hippocampal Neurons Undergoing Synaptic Plasticity

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Dendritic spines are assumed to constitute the locus of neuronal plasticity, and considerable effort has been focused on attempts to demonstrate that new memories are associated with the formation of new spines. However, few studies that have documented the appearance of spines after exposure to plasticity-producing paradigms could demonstrate that a new spine is touched by a bona fida presynaptic terminal. Thus, the functional significance of plastic dendritic spine changes is not clearly understood. We have used quantitative time lapse confocal imaging of cultured hippocampal neurons before and after their exposure to a conditioning medium which activates synaptic NMDA receptors. Following the experiment the cultures were prepared for 3D electron microscopic reconstruction of visually identified dendritic spines. We found that a majority of new, 1- to 2-h-old spines was touched by presynaptic terminals. Furthermore, when spines disappeared, the parent dendrites were sometime touched by a presynaptic bouton at the site where the previously identified spine had been located. We conclude that new spines are most likely to be functional and that pruned spines can be transformed into shaft synapses and thus maintain their functionality within the neuronal network.

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