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A simple rule for dendritic spine and axonal bouton formation can account for cortical reorganization after focal retinal lesions

Butz, M., and Van Ooyen, A. (2013). PloS Computational Biology 9(10): e1003259. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003259. [Full text: PDF] [Supporting figure: PDF] [Corrected figures 8 and 12: PDF] [Science Daily]


Lasting alterations in sensory input trigger massive structural and functional adaptations in cortical networks. The principles governing these experience-dependent changes are, however, poorly understood.

Here, we examine whether a simple rule based on the neurons' need for homeostasis in electrical activity may serve as driving force for cortical reorganization. According to this rule, a neuron creates new spines and boutons when its level of electrical activity is below a homeostatic set-point and decreases the number of spines and boutons when its activity exceeds this set-point. In addition, neurons need a minimum level of activity to form spines and boutons. Spine and bouton formation depends solely on the neuron's own activity level, and synapses are formed by merging spines and boutons independently of activity.

Using a novel computational model, we show that this simple growth rule produces neuron and network changes as observed in the visual cortex after focal retinal lesions. In the model, as in the cortex, the turnover of dendritic spines was increased strongest in the center of the lesion projection zone, while axonal boutons displayed a marked overshoot followed by pruning. Moreover, the decrease in external input was compensated for by the formation of new horizontal connections, which caused a retinotopic remapping.

Homeostatic regulation may provide a unifying framework for understanding cortical reorganization, including network repair in degenerative diseases or following focal stroke.

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