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Unit information: Synaptic plasticity in 2019/20

Please note: Due to alternative arrangements for teaching and assessment in place from 18 March 2020 to mitigate against the restrictions in place due to COVID-19, information shown for 2019/20 may not always be accurate.

Please note: you are viewing unit and programme information for a past academic year. Please see the current academic year for up to date information.

Unit name Synaptic plasticity
Unit code PHPH30010
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 4 (weeks 1-24)
Unit director Professor. Jack Mellor
Open unit status Not open




School/department School of Physiology, Pharmacology & Neuroscience
Faculty Faculty of Life Sciences


This Unit will explore some of the advances in the understanding of synaptic transmission and plasticity in the central nervous system. Synaptic plasticity is one of the means by which neurotransmission can be up- or down-regulated and is considered to be fundamentally important for normal functioning of the mammalian brain. The Unit aims to introduce basic concepts surrounding the electrophysiological analyses of synaptic transmission and plasticity. We will then discuss the mechanisms of short- and long-term synaptic plasticity including the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying long-term potentiation (LTP) and long-term depression (LTD). These underlying mechanisms will then be placed in the context of neuronal circuit development and the encoding and consolidation of memories.

Intended learning outcomes

By the end of this Unit students will be able to:

• appreciate the diverse nature of synaptic plasticity;

• understand various forms of short term plasticity at excitatory and inhibitory synapses;

• understand the properties of long-term potentiation that make this an attractive model of Hebbian plasticity;

• understand some of the fundamental mechanisms underlying the induction of LTP;

• appreciate the different mechanisms that may be responsible for the expression of LTP;

• appreciate that differing forms of LTD exist in the hippocampus and other brain regions and understand the underlying mechanisms of induction and expression;

• understand the importance of synaptic plasticity in forming synaptic connections during brain development;

• appreciate the links between synaptic plasticity and learning in the mature brain;

• evaluate experimental evidence and make appropriate conclusions.

Teaching details


Assessment Details

The unit will be assessed through a 3-hour summative examination in May/June, which contributes 90% of the unit mark and consists of two sections. In Section A (50%), students will be expected to answer one essay question from a choice of 3, which will assess their knowledge and critical understanding of the field, and their ability to gather information from the primary scientific literature. In Section B (50%), students will be expected to answer one multi-part compulsory question assessing data handling/data interpretation and experimental design skills. The remaining 10% of the unit mark will come from completing coursework. The coursework will be either an essay, data interpretation or experimental design question of a similar format to that used in the summative exam.

Reading and References

Reviews and key references from the current scientific literature

  • Malenka, R.C., and Bear, M.F. (2004). LTP and LTD: An embarrassment of riches. Neuron 44, 5-21.
  • A synaptic model of memory: long-term potentiation in the hippocampus. Bliss & Collingridge (1993), Nature, 361: 31-39
  • Synaptic plasticity in the hippocampus. Bliss, Collingridge & Morris (2007), in The Hippocampus Book (Oxford University Press).