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Keywords:

  • laser scanning confocal microscopy;
  • olfactory learning;
  • piriform cortex;
  • pyramidal neurons;
  • synaptic plasticity

Abstract

Learning-related morphological modifications in single dendritic spines were studied quantitatively in the brains of young Sprague–Dawley rats. We have previously shown that olfactory discrimination rule-learning results in transient physiological and morphological modifications in piriform cortex pyramidal neurons. In particular, spine density along the apical dendrites of neurons from trained rats is increased after learning. The aim of the present study was to identify and describe olfactory learning-induced modifications in the morphology of single spines along apical dendrites of the same type of neurons. By using laser-scanning confocal microscopy, we show that 3 days after training completion spines on neurons from olfactory discrimination trained rats are shorter as compared to spines on neurons from control rats. Further analysis revealed that spine shortening attributed to olfactory discrimination learning derives from shortening of spine head and not from shortening of spine neck. In addition, detailed analysis of spine head volume suggests that spines with large heads are absent after learning. As spine head size may be related to the efficacy of the synapse it bears, we suggest that modifications in spine head dimensions following olfactory rule-learning enhance the cortical network ability to enter into a ‘learning mode’, in which memories of new odours can be acquired rapidly and efficiently.