Much evidence indicates that, after learning, memories are created by alterations in glutamate-dependent excitatory synaptic transmission. These modifications are then actively stabilized, over hours or days, by structural changes at postsynaptic sites on dendritic spines. The mechanisms of this structural plasticity are poorly understood, but recent findings are beginning to provide clues. The changes in synaptic transmission are initiated by elevations in intracellular calcium and consequent activation of second messenger signalling pathways in the postsynaptic neuron. These pathways involve intracellular kinases and GTPases, downstream from glutamate receptors, that regulate and coordinate both cytoskeletal and adhesion remodelling, leading to new synaptic connections. Rapid changes in cytoskeletal and adhesion molecules after learning contribute to short-term plasticity and memory, whereas later changes, which depend on de novo protein synthesis as well as the early modifications, seem to be required for the persistence of long-term memory.
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