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Neuroscience. 1997 Sep;80(1):69-77.

Ultrastructural synaptic correlates of spatial learning in rat hippocampus.

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Department of Biology, The Open University, Milton Keynes, U.K.


Memory formation is believed to alter neural circuitry at the synaptic level. Although the hippocampus is known to play an important role in spatial learning, no experimental data exist on the synaptic correlates of this process at the ultrastructural level. Here, we have employed quantitative electron microscopy in order to compare the density, size and spatial arrangement of synapses in the dentate gyrus, and in area CA1, of spatially trained (water maze, invisible platform) versus control (visible platform) rats. No training-associated changes of hippocampal volume were found using a stereological estimaion (disector) of the volume density of dentate granule, or CA1 pyramidal cells. Nor were changes found in either density, or sizes of synapses (spinous or dendritic), in CA1 or dentate gyrus. However, analysis of synaptic spatial distribution showed a training-associated increase in the frequency of shorter distances (i.e. clustering) between synaptic active zones in CA1, but not dentate, thus indicating alterations in local neural circuitry. This finding indicates subtle changes in synaptic organization in area CA1 of the hippocampus following a learning experience, suggesting that spatial memory formation in mammalian hippocampus may involve topographical changes in local circuitry without synapse formation de novo.

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