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Trends Neurosci. 1997 Sep;20(9):385-92.

Centenary of the synapse: from Sherrington to the molecular biology of the synapse and beyond.

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Section of Neurobiology, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT 06510, USA.


Few concepts have meant more to neuroscience than the synapse, commonly understood to mean the junction between two excitable cells. The term was introduced by Charles Sherrington in 1897. The centenary of this event is an appropriate time to review the term's origins and utility. There are some surprises. The term didn't actually come from him. His concept was more functional than structural. The pioneering physiological and structural studies in the 1950s in fact did not lead to a rigorous definition. There is still confusion on how to define neurotransmitters. As molecular biological approaches are increasingly refining the concept of a fundamental synaptic unit, many types of neuronal interactions are appearing that do not fit with the synaptic concept. Are the neural circuits underlying behaviour strictly synaptic? In dealing with these questions, a longer perspective is useful for understanding how the term arose, how it has evolved to the present, and what kinds of challenges may be coming in the future.

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