To study environmental modulation of synaptic molecular structure, the major postsynaptic density protein (mPSDp) from rat visual cortex was monitored. This membrane component, a Ca2+/calmodulin-dependent protein kinase subunit, was measured during normal postnatal development and after visual deprivation. Total synaptic membrane (SM) protein was used as an index of synapses as a whole.

During the first 2 postnatal months, total SM protein in the visual cortex increased 32–fold. In contrast, the mPSDp increased 455–fold, indicating that different molecular components of the cortical synapse develop differentially. Exposure to complete darkness during the first 2 postnatal weeks prevented normal development of total SM protein in visual cortex, values reaching only 66% of normal. Moreover, environmental lighting preferentially modulated the mPSDp, which attained only 34% of the normal value after dark rearing. Thus, visual deprivation selectively inhibited the normal development of specific synaptic components. Moreover, experience-dependent modulation was area specific. In contrast to the marked effect in visual cortex, light deprivation did not alter synapses in the nonvisual parietal and prefrontal cortices. Finally, the modulation of visual cortex mPSDp was stage specific, since visual experience did not alter the synaptic protein in adults. Our results suggest that early visual experience selectively and specifically modifies molecular synaptic components in the visual cortex.

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