What Is Synaptic Plasticity?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 05 September 2019
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Synaptic plasticity is the tendency for the brain to alter the nature of connections between individual synapses in response to changing needs. This allows the brain to adapt itself to new situations and demands, critical for learning and many other cognitive processes. The discovery of synaptic plasticity was an important development in the field of neurology. Researchers with an interest in this subject work with a variety of organisms to learn more about how it works.

Historically, scientists believed that the brain created a series of fixed connections. The strength and location of each connection would not change, and the receptors on each synapse would remain stable. Synaptic plasticity research revealed that this is actually not the case. Connections can wax and wane in strength, and synapses may grow more receptors. This makes the brain as a whole a very elastic organ capable of responding to a variety of changes.

This phenomenon can be divided into short and long term plasticity, on the basis of the duration. Sometimes the characteristics of a connection change for only a few minutes, and other times they may last much longer. It can be extrinsically motivated by activity elsewhere in the brain, or intrinsically, with signals from within the individual synapse. This allows synapses to respond to remapping and other events in other parts of the brain. Learning how this process works may help care providers address issues like memory loss and degenerative brain disease.


Depression and potentiation can both occur as a result of synaptic plasticity. A synapse may become less active and less capable of passing on signals, or more active, with a greater degree of conductivity. This appears to play a critical role in the formation and storage of memories. As a result, synaptic plasticity is an important topic for researchers with an interest in the processes behind human memory. Understanding the process can also help researchers who study what happens when it goes wrong.

Research into synaptic plasticity is an ongoing process in many regions of the world. Members of the public with an interest in this research can consult trade and professional publications, which may be available for a fee. They can also follow the scientific media, where major studies are usually a topic of discussion, along with interpretation for readers who may have difficulty following the science. People can also contribute to research by enrolling as participants in studies on memory, cognition, and other processes in the human brain.


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