▪ Abstract It has been clear for almost two decades that cortical representations in adult animals are not fixed entities, but rather, are dynamic and are continuously modified by experience. The cortex can preferentially allocate area to represent the particular peripheral input sources that are proportionally most used. Alterations in cortical representations appear to underlie learning tasks dependent on the use of the behaviorally important peripheral inputs that they represent. The rules governing this cortical representational plasticity following manipulations of inputs, including learning, are increasingly well understood.
In parallel with developments in the field of cortical map plasticity, studies of synaptic plasticity have characterized specific elementary forms of plasticity, including associative long-term potentiation and long-term depression of excitatory postsynaptic potentials. Investigators have made many important strides toward understanding the molecular underpinnings of these fundamental plasticity processes and toward defining the learning rules that govern their induction. The fields of cortical synaptic plasticity and cortical map plasticity have been implicitly linked by the hypothesis that synaptic plasticity underlies cortical map reorganization. Recent experimental and theoretical work has provided increasingly stronger support for this hypothesis. The goal of the current paper is to review the fields of both synaptic and cortical map plasticity with an emphasis on the work that attempts to unite both fields. A second objective is to highlight the gaps in our understanding of synaptic and cellular mechanisms underlying cortical representational plasticity.