Changing the whisker complement on a rodent's snout can lead to two forms of experience-dependent plasticity (EDP) in the neurons of the barrel cortex, where whiskers are somatotopically represented. One form, termed coding plasticity, concerns changes in synaptic transmission and connectivity between neurons. This is thought to underlie learning and memory processes and so adaptation to a changing environment. The second, called homeostatic plasticity, serves to maintain a restricted dynamic range of neuronal activity thus preventing its saturation or total downregulation. Current explanatory models of cortical EDP are almost exclusively neurocentric. However, in recent years, increasing evidence has emerged on the role of astrocytes in brain function, including plasticity. Indeed, astrocytes appear as necessary partners of neurons at the core of the mechanisms of coding and homeostatic plasticity recorded in neurons. In addition to neuronal plasticity, several different forms of astrocytic plasticity have recently been discovered. They extend from changes in receptor expression and dynamic changes in morphology to alteration in gliotransmitter release. It is however unclear how astrocytic plasticity contributes to the neuronal EDP. Here, we review the known and possible roles for astrocytes in the barrel cortex, including its plasticity.
Bibliographical noteCopyright © 2015 Robert E. Sims et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Funding: BBSRC: BB/J018422/1 and BB/J017809/1