Linking synaptic plasticity with behavioral learning requires understanding how synaptic efficacy influences postsynaptic firing in neurons whose role in behavior is understood. Here, we examine plasticity at a candidate site of motor learning: vestibular nerve synapses onto neurons that mediate reflexive movements. Pairing nerve activity with changes in postsynaptic voltage induced bidirectional synaptic plasticity in vestibular nucleus projection neurons: long-term potentiation relied on calcium-permeable AMPA receptors and postsynaptic hyperpolarization, whereas long-term depression relied on NMDA receptors and postsynaptic depolarization. Remarkably, both forms of plasticity uniformly scaled synaptic currents evoked by pulse trains, and these changes in synaptic efficacy were translated into linear increases or decreases in postsynaptic firing responses. Synapses onto local inhibitory neurons were also plastic but expressed only long-term depression. Bidirectional, linear gain control of vestibular nerve synapses onto projection neurons provides a plausible mechanism for motor learning underlying adaptation of vestibular reflexes.
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