Activity Dependent and Independent Determinants of Synaptic Size Diversity
The extraordinary diversity of excitatory synapse sizes is commonly attributed to activity-dependent processes that drive synaptic growth and diminution. Recent studies also point to activity-independent size fluctuations, possibly driven by innate synaptic molecule dynamics, as important generators of size diversity. To examine the contributions of activity-dependent and independent processes to excitatory synapse size diversity, we studied glutamatergic synapse size dynamics and diversification in cultured rat cortical neurons (both sexes), silenced from plating. We found that in networks with no history of activity whatsoever, synaptic size diversity was no less extensive than that observed in spontaneously active networks. Synapses in silenced networks were larger, size distributions were broader, yet these were rightward-skewed and similar in shape when scaled by mean synaptic size. Silencing reduced the magnitude of size fluctuations and weakened constraints on size distributions, yet these were sufficient to explain synaptic size diversity in silenced networks. Model-based exploration followed by experimental testing indicated that silencing-associated changes in innate molecular dynamics and fluctuation characteristics might negatively impact synaptic persistence, resulting in reduced synaptic numbers. This, in turn, would increase synaptic molecule availability, promote synaptic enlargement, and ultimately alter fluctuation characteristics. These findings suggest that activity-independent size fluctuations are sufficient to fully diversify glutamatergic synaptic sizes, with activity-dependent processes primarily setting the scale rather than the shape of size distributions. Moreover, they point to reciprocal relationships between synaptic size fluctuations, size distributions, and synaptic numbers mediated by the innate dynamics of synaptic molecules as they move in, out, and between synapses.
SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Sizes of glutamatergic synapses vary tremendously, even when formed on the same neuron. This diversity is commonly thought to reflect the outcome of activity-dependent forms of synaptic plasticity, yet activity-independent processes might also play some part. Here we show that in neurons with no history of activity whatsoever, synaptic sizes are no less diverse. We show that this diversity is the product of activity-independent size fluctuations, which are sufficient to generate a full repertoire of synaptic sizes at correct proportions. By combining modeling and experimentation we expose reciprocal relationships between size fluctuations, synaptic sizes and synaptic counts, and show how these phenomena might be connected through the dynamics of synaptic molecules as they move in, out, and between synapses.