Synaptic plasticity is defined as the ability of synapses to change their strength of transmission. Plasticity of synaptic connections in the brain is a major focus of neuroscience research, as it is the primary mechanism underpinning learning and memory. Beyond the brain however, plasticity in peripheral neurons is less well understood, particularly in the neurons innervating the heart. The atria receive rich innervation from the autonomic branch of the peripheral nervous system. Sympathetic neurons are clustered in stellate and cervical ganglia alongside the spinal cord and extend fibers to the heart directly innervating the myocardium. These neurons are major drivers of hyperactive sympathetic activity observed in heart disease, ventricular arrhythmias, and sudden cardiac death. Both pre- and postsynaptic changes have been observed to occur at synapses formed by sympathetic ganglion neurons, suggesting that plasticity at sympathetic neuro-cardiac synapses is a major contributor to arrhythmias. Less is known about the plasticity in parasympathetic neurons located in clusters on the heart surface. These neuronal clusters, termed ganglionated plexi, or "little brains," can independently modulate neural control of the heart and stimulation that enhances their excitability can induce arrhythmia such as atrial fibrillation. The ability of these neurons to alter parasympathetic activity suggests that plasticity may indeed occur at the synapses formed on and by ganglionated plexi neurons. Such changes may not only fine-tune autonomic innervation of the heart, but could also be a source of maladaptive plasticity during atrial fibrillation.
LTP, atria, atrial fibrillation, ganglionated plexi, innervation, synapse plasticity