The formation of spines and their association with synapses were examined in developing cultured rat cortical neurons using fluorescence labeling techniques. Small protrusions were found on the processes of cultured cortical neurons after seven days in vitro (DIV), and the density of protrusions almost halved during the second week in vitro, after which it remained unchanged throughout the third week in vitro. The proportion of protrusions associated with the accumulation of the presynaptic marker, synaptophysin, increased steadily from <5% at 7 DIV to approximately 50% at 21 DIV. Based on the absence or presence of an enlargement at the end, protrusions on processes were further divided into filopodia and spines, respectively. The percentage of protrusions that were classified as spines increased steadily from approximately 5% at 3-4 DIV to approximately 80% at 18-20 DIV. The percentage of spines associated with synaptophysin accumulation increased gradually as the cortical neurons developed in vitro, reaching a plateau of approximately 40% after two weeks. However, the percentage of filopodia associated with synaptophysin accumulation never exceeded 5% during the first three weeks in vitro. Double-label staining the microfilaments and beta-tubulin or phosphorylated neurofilament H of cultured neurons further revealed many spines without any nearby axon-like processes. These findings suggest that spines are the dominant form of protrusion on the processes of more mature cortical neurons, that spines are the preferential sites where synapses reside, and that maintaining constant contact with axons is not essential for the formation of spines in cultured cortical neurons.
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