The synaptotropic hypothesis, which states that synaptic inputs control the elaboration of dendritic (and axonal) arbors was articulated by Vaughn in 1989. Today the role of synaptic inputs in controlling neuronal structural development remains an area of intense research activity. Several recent studies have applied modern molecular genetic, imaging and electrophysiological methods to this question and now provide strong evidence that maturation of excitatory synaptic inputs is required for the development of neuronal structure in the intact brain. Here we critically review data concerning the hypothesis with the expectation that understanding the circumstances when the data do and do not support the hypothesis will be most valuable. The synaptotrophic hypothesis contributes at both conceptual and mechanistic levels to our understanding of how relatively minor changes in levels or function of synaptic proteins may have profound effects on circuit development and plasticity.