Evaluating statistical methods used to estimate the number of postsynaptic receptors.

Publication Date



J Neurosci Methods. 2009 April 15; 178(2): 393–401.


Calcium levels in spines play a significant role in determining the sign and magnitude of synaptic plasticity. The magnitude of calcium influx into spines is highly dependent on influx through N-methyl D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors, and therefore depends on the number of postsynaptic NMDA receptors in each spine. We have calculated previously how the number of postsynaptic NMDA receptors determines the mean and variance of calcium transients in the postsynaptic density, and how this alters the shape of plasticity curves. However, the number of postsynaptic NMDA receptors in the postsynaptic density is not well known. Anatomical methods for estimating the number of NMDA receptors produce estimates that are very different than those produced by physiological techniques. The physiological techniques are based on the statistics of synaptic transmission and it is difficult to experimentally estimate their precision. In this paper we use stochastic simulations in order to test the validity of a physiological estimation technique based on failure analysis. We find that the method is likely to underestimate the number of postsynaptic NMDA receptors, explain the source of the error, and re-derive a more precise estimation technique. We also show that the original failure analysis as well as our improved formulas are not robust to small estimation errors in key parameters.


Algorithms, Binomial Distribution, Computer Simulation, Dendritic Spines, Excitatory Amino Acid Antagonists, Glutamic Acid, Kinetics, Markov Chains, Models, Neurological, Piperazines, Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate, Stochastic Processes, Synapses, Synaptic Transmission