Under conditions where the sensory input to the cortex has been altered, large-scale changes in dendritic branching have been observed after enriched environment experience (e.g. Greenough and Volkmar, 1973) and sensory deprivation (e.g. Tailby et al. 2005). However there is a discrepancy between those post-mortem studies and more modern in vivo studies, where only small-scale changes of the dendritic tips have been observed (Schubert et al. 2013). Large-scale axonal re-arrangements have been also implicated in post-mortem studies after sensory deprivation (e.g. Darian-Smith and Gilbert, 1994) but no such effects have been convincingly described in living animals.
These somewhat different results may be due to several technical limitations: 1) post-mortem studies have utilized injectable tracers and their uptake and/or expression levels may contribute in part to the observed results, 2) in vivo studies have been confined to superficial dendrites due to optical access limitations. Furthermore, these manipulations of the animal's experience are relatively crude ways of probing cortical circuits and do not necessarily reflect the processes that the brain may use under more physiological conditions.
By far the most well described processes under enriched environment experience, sensory deprivation and sensory stimulation, and learning paradigms are microscopic changes at the level of individual synapses. These include increased synaptic turnover (Trachtenberg et al. 2002, Xu et al. 2009), synaptic stabilization (Holtmaat et al. 2006), and synaptic strength changes (Hofer et al. 2009). These microscopic changes provide a very economical way, in comparison to large-scale dendritic or axonal re-arrangements, in which neuronal circuits can be extensively rewired given the enormous potential of dendritic spines and boutons to sample different synaptic partners (Stepanyants et al. 2002).
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