Formation of the human brain during embryonic and postnatal development is an extraordinarily complex process resulting at maturity in billions of neurons with trillions of specialized connections called synapses. These synapses, composed of a varicosity or bouton from a presynaptic neuron that communicates with a dendritic spine of the postsynaptic neuron, comprise the neural network that is essential for complex behavioral phenomena and cognition. Inappropriate synapse formation or structure is thought to underlie several developmental neuropathologies. Even in the mature CNS, alterations in synapse structure and function continues to be a very dynamic process that is foundational to learning and memory as well as other adaptive abilities of the brain. This synaptic plasticity in mature neurons, which is often triggered by certain patterns of neural activity, is again multifaceted and involves post-translational modifications (e.g. phosphorylation) and subcellular relocalization or trafficking (endocytosis/exocytosis) of existing synaptic proteins, initiation of protein synthesis from existing mRNAs localized in dendrites or spines, and triggering of new gene transcription in the nucleus. These various cellular processes support varying temporal components of synaptic plasticity that begin within 1-2 min but can persist for hours to days. This review will give a critical assessment of activity-dependent molecular modulations of synapses reported over the past couple years. Owing to space limitations, it will focus on mammalian excitatory (i.e. glutamatergic) synapses and will not consider several activity-independent signaling pathways (e.g. ephrinB receptor) that also modulate spine and synapse formation [1,2].
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