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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2007 Feb 6;104(6):1823-8. Epub 2007 Jan 29.

The optimal height of the synaptic cleft.

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Institute of Neurology, University College London, Queen Square, London, United Kingdom.


Signal integration in the brain is determined by the size and kinetics of rapid synaptic responses. The latter, in turn, depends on the concentration profile of neurotransmitter in the synaptic cleft. According to a traditional view, narrower clefts should correspond to higher intracleft concentrations of neurotransmitter, and therefore to the enhanced activation of synaptic receptors. Here, we argue that narrowing the cleft also increases electrical resistance of the intracleft medium and therefore reduces local receptor currents. We employ detailed theoretical analyses and Monte Carlo simulations to propose that these two contrasting phenomena result in a relatively narrow range of cleft heights at which the synaptic receptor current reaches its maximum. Over a physiological range of synaptic parameters, the "optimum" height falls between approximately 12 and 20 nm. This range is consistent with the structure of central synapses reported by electron microscopy. Therefore, our results suggest that a simple fundamental principle may underlie the synaptic cleft architecture: to maximize synaptic strength.

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