Dendritic spines appear and disappear in an experience-dependent manner. Although some new spines have been shown to contain synapses, little is known about the relationship between spine addition and synapse formation, the relative time course of these events, or whether they are coupled to de novo growth of axonal boutons. We imaged dendrites in barrel cortex of adult mice over 1 month, tracking gains and losses of spines. Using serial section electron microscopy, we analyzed the ultrastructure of spines and associated boutons. Spines reconstructed shortly after they appeared often lacked synapses, whereas spines that persisted for 4 d or more always had synapses. New spines had a large surface-to-volume ratio and preferentially contacted boutons with other synapses. In some instances, two new spines contacted the same axon. Our data show that spine growth precedes synapse formation and that new synapses form preferentially onto existing boutons.

Knott GW, Holtmaat A, Wilbrecht L, Welker E, Svoboda K. 2006. Spine growth precedes synapse formation in the adult neocortex in vivo. Nature Neuroscience 9, 1117 – 1124 (2006)
Published online: 6 August 2006 | doi:10.1038/nn1747 (Full Text)