Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 2 hours / session


At least one of the following courses:

7.03 Genetics
7.05 General Biochemistry
7.06 Cell Biology
7.28 Molecular Biology

Basic knowledge of cell biology, molecular biology and neuroscience will be beneficial.

Course Description

The brain is the most sophisticated computational machine known. Vastly different from conventional man-made computers, the brain is massively parallel, self-organizing, and plastic - it can change its own components and rewire itself to a new configuration necessary for a new task. Synapses, the connections between nerve cells, are the fundamental computational units of the brain. Like transistors in a computer, synapses perform complex computations and connect the brain's non-linear processing elements (neurons) into a functional circuit. Understanding the role of synapses in neuronal computation is essential to understanding how the brain works.

In this course students will be introduced to cutting-edge research in the field of synaptic neurophysiology. The course will cover such topics as synapse formation, synaptic function, synaptic plasticity, the roles of synapses in higher cognitive processes and how synaptic dysfunction can lead to disease. This research requires a wide range of techniques, including molecular genetics, biochemistry, electrophysiology and optical imaging, and examines mechanisms involved in the development, physiology, and pathophysiology of the nervous system.

We will read both classical research papers addressing the basics of synaptic physiology and the latest research papers addressing the role of synapses in the function of neuronal circuits. Students will learn to critically analyze scientific papers, to apply the scientific method in neuroscience research, to evaluate and interpret data and to design experiments.

Course Format

The main objective of the course is to introduce students to primary research papers in neuroscience and teach students to critically evaluate scientific literature. Students will learn to identify key questions/problems addressed by the authors and apply critical thinking. The course will also introduce students to a broad scope of neuroscience facts and concepts through exposure to classic and contemporary research papers.

Two papers per week, focusing on different areas of neuroscience, will be discussed. The students will be given a short 15 minute overview of the key concepts and the necessary reading the week before. The students are expected to read the papers and identify the key questions raised in the papers before the discussion session. The advantages and disadvantages of the authors' approach and techniques, and the potential directions for the future research will also be discussed.


The course is graded pass/fail. A passing grade will be awarded to students who have satisfactory attendance, read the papers thoroughly, submit questions concerning the papers to the instructors the day before each session, come to class prepared to discuss every figure, and have completed class assignments appropriately.


1 Introduction
2 Neuromuscular Junction (NMJ) Synapses, Miniature End-Plate Potentials (mEPPs), and Quantal Hypothesis
3 Central Nervous System (CNS) Synapses and Glutamate Receptors
4 CNS Synaptogenesis
5 Synaptic Fusion and SNAREs
6 Synaptic Release, the Calcium Sensor Hypothesis, and Synaptotagmin
7 Synaptic Plasticity: Presynaptic Pair-Pulse Changes
8 Field Trip to the Laboratory of Mark Bear
9 Synaptic Plasticity: LTP
10 Synaptic Plasticity: LTD
11 Synaptic Plasticity: STDP
12 Persistent Neuronal Activity and UP-States
13 Optogenetic Tools in Neuroscience
14 Oral Presentations