The effect of estradiol to increase the density of dendritic spines and axospinous synapses on hippocampal CA1 pyramidal cells in the adult female rat has been well-documented. However, presynaptic involvement in this process of synapse elimination and formation in the adult is unknown. To address this issue, we have reconstructed 410 complete presynaptic boutons through coded serial electron micrographs of CA1 stratum radiatum to determine the: (1) frequency of multiple (MSB) vs. single (SSB) synapse boutons; (2) number of synaptic contacts per MSB; (3) bouton volume and surface area; and (4) types of spines in synaptic contact with MSBs and SSBs in ovariectomized, estradiol-treated animals (OVX + E) versus ovariectomized oil-treated controls (OVX + O). Quantitative analysis of this tissue revealed that, in OVX + E animals, 45.0% of presynaptic boutons form multiple synaptic contacts with dendritic spines compared to 27.3% in controls (P < 0.01); the average number of synapses per MSB was 2.7 in OVX + E animals compared to 2.3 in controls (P < 0.05). This represents a 25.5% increase in the number of synapses formed by a given number of presynaptic boutons in estradiol-treated animals (P < 0.01) which largely accounts for the previously observed estradiol-induced increase in axospinous synapse density. There was no treatment effect on bouton size; however, because MSBs are larger than SSBs, the increased frequency of MSBs in estradiol-treated tissue results in a trend toward an estradiol-induced increase in average bouton size. Additionally, MSBs were found to be more irregular in shape, i.e., significantly less spherical, than SSBs. Our results indicate that estradiol-induced dendritic spines form synapses primarily with preexisting boutons in stratum radiatum and that these boutons enlarge and change shape as they accommodate new synapses. Such findings suggest a relatively active role for dendrites in the process of adult synapse formation. © 1996 Wiley-Liss, Inc.