This lets the brain create new memories without overwriting the important memories stored in mature synapses, which are harder to change,” says Dimitra Vardalaki, an MIT graduate student and the lead author of the new study.
During early development, these synapses are believed to help the brain acquire the massive amounts of information that babies need to learn about their environment and how to interact with it.However, some neuroscientists have proposed that silent synapses may persist into adulthood and help with the formation of new memories.As part of that study, the researchers tried to measure neurotransmitter receptors in different dendritic branches, to see if that would help to account for the differences in their behavior.
They also found that filopodia had neurotransmitter receptors called NMDA receptors, but no AMPA receptors.
NMDA receptors normally require cooperation with AMPA receptors to pass signals because NMDA receptors are blocked by magnesium ions at the normal resting potential of neurons.Thus, when AMPA receptors are not present, synapses that have only NMDA receptors cannot pass along an electric current and are referred to as “silent.”.Using this technique, the researchers found that glutamate would not generate any electrical signal in the filopodium receiving the input, unless the NMDA receptors were experimentally unblocked.
This offers strong support for the theory the filopodia represent silent synapses within the brain, the researchers say.The researchers found that converting silent synapses into active synapses was much easier than altering mature synapses.“The synapses in the adult brain have a much higher threshold, presumably because you want those memories to be pretty resilient.The findings offer support for the theory proposed by Abbott and Fusi that the adult brain includes highly plastic synapses that can be recruited to form new memories, the researchers say.The researchers are now looking for evidence of these silent synapses in human brain tissue.Newly generated excitatory synapses in the mammalian cortex lack sufficient AMPA-type glutamate receptors to mediate neurotransmission, resulting in functionally silent synapses that require activity-dependent plasticity to mature
Unexpectedly, about 25% of these synapses lack AMPA receptorsThese putative silent synapses were located at the tips of thin dendritic protrusions, known as filopodia, which were more abundant by an order of magnitude than previously believed (comprising about 30% of all dendritic protrusions)These results challenge the model that functional connectivity is largely fixed in the adult cortex and demonstrate a new mechanism for flexible control of synaptic wiring that expands the learning capabilities of the mature brain