Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America
Long-term plasticity can differ from short-term in recruiting the growth of new synaptic connections, a process that requires the participation of both the presynaptic and postsynaptic components of the synapse. How does information about synaptic plasticity spread from its site of origin to recruit the other component? The answer to this question is not known in most systems. We have investigated the possible role of spontaneous transmitter release as such a transsynaptic signal. Until recently, relatively little has been known about the functions of spontaneous release. In this paper, we report that spontaneous release is critical for the induction of a learning-related form of synaptic plasticity, long-term facilitation in Aplysia. In addition, we have found that this signaling is engaged quite early, during an intermediate-term stage that is the first stage to involve postsynaptic as well as presynaptic molecular mechanisms. In a companion paper, we show that spontaneous release from the presynaptic neuron acts as an orthograde signal to recruit the postsynaptic mechanisms of intermediate-term facilitation and initiates a cascade that can culminate in synaptic growth with additional stimulation during long-term facilitation. Spontaneous release could make a similar contribution to learning-related synaptic plasticity in mammals.