This article is part of the Research Topic Spike-timing dependent plasticity


Front. Synaptic Neurosci., 29 August 2011 |

A history of spike-timing-dependent plasticity

  • 1 Brain Mind Institute, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland
  • 2 Department of Neuroscience, Physiology and Pharmacology, University College London, London, UK
  • 3 Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Centre for Research in Neuroscience, The Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre, Montreal General Hospital, Montreal, QC, Canada

How learning and memory is achieved in the brain is a central question in neuroscience. Key to today’s research into information storage in the brain is the concept of synaptic plasticity, a notion that has been heavily influenced by Hebb’s (1949) postulate. Hebb conjectured that repeatedly and persistently co-active cells should increase connective strength among populations of interconnected neurons as a means of storing a memory trace, also known as an engram. Hebb certainly was not the first to make such a conjecture, as we show in this history. Nevertheless, literally thousands of studies into the classical frequency-dependent paradigm of cellular learning rules were directly inspired by the Hebbian postulate. But in more recent years, a novel concept in cellular learning has emerged, where temporal order instead of frequency is emphasized. This new learning paradigm – known as spike-timing-dependent plasticity (STDP) – has rapidly gained tremendous interest, perhaps because of its combination of elegant simplicity, biological plausibility, and computational power. But what are the roots of today’s STDP concept? Here, we discuss several centuries of diverse thinking, beginning with philosophers such as Aristotle, Locke, and Ribot, traversing, e.g., Lugaro’s plasticità and Rosenblatt’s perceptron, and culminating with the discovery of STDP. We highlight interactions between theoretical and experimental fields, showing how discoveries sometimes occurred in parallel, seemingly without much knowledge of the other field, and sometimes via concrete back-and-forth communication. We point out where the future directions may lie, which includes interneuron STDP, the functional impact of STDP, its mechanisms and its neuromodulatory regulation, and the linking of STDP to the developmental formation and continuous plasticity of neuronal networks.

Keywords: synaptic plasticity, spike-timing-dependent plasticity, bidirectional plasticity, long term depression, long term plasticity, history, learning, memory

Citation: Markram H, Gerstner W and Sjöström PJ (2011) A history of spike-timing-dependent plasticity. Front. Syn. Neurosci. 3:4. doi: 10.3389/fnsyn.2011.00004

Received: 20 February 2011; Paper pending published: 19 April 2011;
Accepted: 25 July 2011; Published online: 29 August 2011.

Edited by:

Mary B. Kennedy, Caltech, USA

Reviewed by:

Kei Cho, University of Bristol, UK
Takeshi Sakaba, Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Germany
Yves Frégnac, CNRS UNIC, France
Larry Abbott, Columbia University, USA

Copyright: © 2011 Markram, Gerstner and Sjöström. This is an open-access article subject to a non-exclusive license between the authors and Frontiers Media SA, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in other forums, provided the original authors and source are credited and other Frontiers conditions are complied with.

*Correspondence: Henry Markram, Brain Mind Institute, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, CH-1015 Lausanne, Switzerland. e-mail: