, Volume 31, Issue 3-5, pp 195-202

Specificity of cortical synaptic connectivity: Emphasis on perspectives gained from quantitative electron microscopy

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Abstract

This report traces the historical development of concepts regarding the specificity of synaptic connectivity in the cerebral cortex as viewed primarily from the perspective of electron microscopy. The occurrence of stereotypical patterns of connection (e.g., contrasting synaptic patterns on the surfaces of spiny vs. non-spiny neurons, the general consistency with which axonal pathways impinge on and originate within specific cortical areas and layers, triadic synaptic relationships) implies that cortical connectivity is highly structured. The high degree of order characterizing many aspects of cortical organization is mirrored by an equally ordered arrangement of synaptic connections between specific types of neurons. This observation is based on quantitative electron microscopic studies of synapses between identified neurons and from the results of correlative anatomical/electrophysiological investigations. The recognition of recurring synaptic patterns and responses between specific neurons has generated increased support for the notion of specificity of synaptic connections at the expense of randomness, but the role of specificity in cortical function is an unresolved question. At the core of cortical processing lie myriad possibilities for computation provided by the wealth of synaptic connections involving each cortical neuron. Specificity, by limiting possibilities for connection, can impose an order on synaptic interactions even as processes of dynamic selection or synaptic remodeling ensure the constant formation and dissolution of cortical circuits. These operations make maximal use of the richness of cortical synaptic connections to produce a highly flexible system, irrespective of the degree of randomness or specificity that obtains for cortical wiring at any particular time.