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Synaptic plasticity in the auditory system: a review


Synaptic transmission via chemical synapses is dynamic, i.e., the strength of postsynaptic responses may change considerably in response to repeated synaptic activation. Synaptic strength is increased during facilitation, augmentation and potentiation, whereas a decrease in synaptic strength is characteristic for depression and attenuation. This review attempts to discuss the literature on short-term and long-term synaptic plasticity in the auditory brainstem of mammals and birds. One hallmark of the auditory system, particularly the inner ear and lower brainstem stations, is information transfer through neurons that fire action potentials at very high frequency, thereby activating synapses >500 times per second. Some auditory synapses display morphological specializations of the presynaptic terminals, e.g., calyceal extensions, whereas other auditory synapses do not. The review focuses on short-term depression and short-term facilitation, i.e., plastic changes with durations in the millisecond range. Other types of short-term synaptic plasticity, e.g., posttetanic potentiation and depolarization-induced suppression of excitation, will be discussed much more briefly. The same holds true for subtypes of long-term plasticity, like prolonged depolarizations and spike-time-dependent plasticity. We also address forms of plasticity in the auditory brainstem that do not comprise synaptic plasticity in a strict sense, namely short-term suppression, paired tone facilitation, short-term adaptation, synaptic adaptation and neural adaptation. Finally, we perform a meta-analysis of 61 studies in which short-term depression (STD) in the auditory system is opposed to short-term depression at non-auditory synapses in order to compare high-frequency neurons with those that fire action potentials at a lower rate. This meta-analysis reveals considerably less STD in most auditory synapses than in non-auditory ones, enabling reliable, failure-free synaptic transmission even at frequencies >100 Hz. Surprisingly, the calyx of Held, arguably the best-investigated synapse in the central nervous system, depresses most robustly. It will be exciting to reveal the molecular mechanisms that set high-fidelity synapses apart from other synapses that function much less reliably.

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α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid


Auditory nerve fiber


Action potential


Anteroventral cochlear nucleus


Bushy cell


Cannabinoid receptors


Cochlear nuclear complex




Dorsal cochlear nucleus




Dorsal nucleus of the lateral lemniscus


Ethylene glycol tetraacetic acid-acetoxymethyl ester


Excitatory postsynaptic current


Excitatory postsynaptic potential


γ-aminobutyric acid


Granule cells in the DCN


Inferior colliculus

IpCa :

Presynaptic calcium current


Inhibitory postsynaptic current


Inhibitory postsynaptic potential


Inter-stimulus interval




Lateral superior olive


Metabotropic glutamate receptors


Medial nucleus of the trapezoid body


Medial superior olive


Nucleus angularis


Nucleus laminaris


Nuclei of the lateral lemniscus


Nucleus magnocellularis




Postnatal day


Prolonged depolarizations


Parallel fibers (from GCs)


Paired-pulse depression


Paired-pulse facilitation


Paired-pulse ratio

Pr :

Release probability


Posttetanic hyperpolarization


Posttetanic potentiation


Posteroventral cochlear nucleus


Readily releasable pool


Superior olivary complex


Short-term depression


Spike-time dependent plasticity


Short-term plasticity


Short-term facilitation

τdep :

Time constant for depression

τfast :

Time constant for fast recovery phase

τslow :

Time constant for slow recovery phase


Tuberculo-ventral cell


Ventral cochlear nucleus




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This work was supported by the Priority Program 1608 “Ultrafast and temporally precise information processing: normal and dysfunctional hearing” of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (grant FR-1784/17-1).

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Correspondence to Eckhard Friauf.

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Friauf, E., Fischer, A.U. & Fuhr, M.F. Synaptic plasticity in the auditory system: a review. Cell Tissue Res 361, 177–213 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00441-015-2176-x

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  • Short-term plasticity
  • Auditory brainstem
  • Calyx of Held
  • Endbulb of Held
  • Long-term plasticity