LTP Mechanisms

Long-term potentiation (LTP) is the long-lasting improvement in communication between two neurons that results from stimulating them simultaneously. Since neurons communicate via chemical synapses, and because memories are believed to be stored within these synapses, LTP is widely considered one of the major cellular mechanisms that underlies learning and memory.

LTP shares many features with long-term memory that make it an attractive candidate for a cellular mechanism of learning. For example, LTP and long-term memory are triggered rapidly, each depends upon the synthesis of new proteins, each has properties of associativity, and each can potentially last for many months. LTP may account for many types of learning, from the relatively simple classical conditioning present in all animals, to the more complex, higher-level cognition observed in humans.

By enhancing synaptic transmission, LTP improves the ability of two neurons, one presynaptic and the other postsynaptic, to communicate with one another across a synapse. The precise mechanisms for this enhancement of transmission have not been fully established, in part because LTP is governed by multiple mechanisms that vary by such things as brain region, animal age, and species. Yet in the most well understood form of LTP, enhanced communication is predominantly carried out by improving the postsynaptic cell's sensitivity to signals received from the presynaptic cell. These signals, in the form of neurotransmitter molecules, are received by neurotransmitter receptors present on the surface of the postsynaptic cell. LTP improves the postsynaptic cell's sensitivity to neurotransmitter in large part by increasing the activity of existing receptors and by increasing the number of receptors on the postsynaptic cell surface.

LTP was discovered in the rabbit hippocampus by Terje Lømo in 1966 and has remained a popular subject of research since. Most modern LTP studies seek to better understand its basic biology, while others aim to draw a causal link between LTP and behavioral learning. Still others try to develop methods, pharmacologic or otherwise, of enhancing LTP to improve learning and memory. LTP is also a subject of clinical research, for example, in the areas of Alzheimer's disease and addiction medicine.


Long-term potentiation occurs through a variety of mechanisms throughout the nervous system; no single mechanism unites all of LTP's many types. However, for the purposes of study, LTP is commonly divided into three phases that occur sequentially: short-term potentiation, early LTP, and late LTP. Little is known about the mechanisms of short-term potentiation,

Each phase of LTP is governed by a set of mediators, small molecules that dictate the events of that phase. These molecules include protein receptors that respond to events outside of the cell, enzymes that carry out chemical reactions within the cell, and signaling molecules that allow the progression from one phase to the next. In addition to these mediators, there are also modulator molecules, described later, that interact with mediators to finely alter the LTP ultimately generated.

The early (E-LTP) and late (L-LTP) phases of LTP are each characterized by a series of three events: induction, maintenance, and expression. Induction is the process by which a short-lived signal triggers that phase of LTP to begin. Maintenance corresponds to the persistent biochemical changes that occur in response to the induction of that phase. Expression entails the long-lasting cellular changes that result from activation of the maintenance signal. Thus the mechanisms of LTP can be discussed in terms of the mediators that underlie the induction, maintenance, and expression of E-LTP and L-LTP.

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