The Strength of Electrical Synapses

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Science  21 Oct 2011:
Vol. 334, Issue 6054, pp. 315-316
DOI: 10.1126/science.1213894

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Electrical synapses have a rich and sometimes controversial history. During the early 20th century, the question of whether chemical or electrical synapses underlie the main mode of signaling in the mammalian central nervous system (CNS) was hotly debated (1). However, after the discovery of neuronal inhibition in the early 1950s, it was accepted that transmission of information via neurotransmitter molecules (chemical synapses) represents the major form of signaling among CNS neurons. Although a consensus developed that electrical synapses are present in a subset of neuronal connections, it was unknown whether these synapses exhibit selectivity and plasticity as shown for most chemical synapses, or whether neuronal activity can result in long-term change of synaptic strength of electrical synapses (2) in the mammalian CNS. On page 389 of this issue, Haas et al. (3) demonstrate that the strength of electrical synapses among specific neurons in the thalamus of the mammalian brain affects long-term depression (LTD), a process important for learning and memory. Given the proposed role that electrical synapses play in synchronizing neuronal activity, these findings suggest a mechanism for controlling the coordination of neuronal activity.