Structural and functional plasticity of dendritic spines – root or result of behavior?

C. D. Gipson, M. F. Olive

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

119 Scopus citations


Dendritic spines are multifunctional integrative units of the nervous system and are highly diverse and dynamic in nature. Both internal and external stimuli influence dendritic spine density and morphology on the order of minutes. It is clear that the structural plasticity of dendritic spines is related to changes in synaptic efficacy, learning and memory and other cognitive processes. However, it is currently unclear whether structural changes in dendritic spines are primary instigators of changes in specific behaviors, a consequence of behavioral changes, or both. In this review, we first examine the basic structure and function of dendritic spines in the brain, as well as laboratory methods to characterize and quantify morphological changes in dendritic spines. We then discuss the existing literature on the temporal and functional relationship between changes in dendritic spines in specific brain regions and changes in specific behaviors mediated by those regions. Although technological advancements have allowed us to better understand the functional relevance of structural changes in dendritic spines that are influenced by environmental stimuli, the role of spine dynamics as an underlying driver or consequence of behavior still remains elusive. We conclude that while it is likely that structural changes in dendritic spines are both instigators and results of behavioral changes, improved research tools and methods are needed to experimentally and directly manipulate spine dynamics in order to more empirically delineate the relationship between spine structure and behavior.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)101-117
Number of pages17
JournalGenes, Brain and Behavior
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 John Wiley & Sons Ltd and International Behavioural and Neural Genetics Society


  • Actin
  • Golgi
  • behavior
  • cytoskeleton
  • dendritic spine
  • dynamics
  • glutamate
  • histology
  • morphology
  • plasticity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Genetics
  • Neurology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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