Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University Medical Center, New York, NY 10032, United States; Department of Neurology, Columbia University Medical Center, New York, NY 10032, United States; Department of Pharmacology, Columbia University Medical Center, New York, NY 10032, United States; Research Foundation for Mental Hygiene, New York State Psychiatric Institute, New York, NY 10032, United States. Electronic address: [Email]
The dendritic protrusions known as spines represent the primary postsynaptic location for excitatory synapses. Dendritic spines are critical for many synaptic functions, and their formation, modification, and turnover are thought to be important for mechanisms of learning and memory. At many excitatory synapses, dendritic spines form during the early postnatal period, and while many spines are likely being formed and removed throughout life, the net number are often gradually "pruned" during adolescence to reach a stable level in the adult. In neurodevelopmental disorders, spine pruning is disrupted, emphasizing the importance of understanding its governing processes. Autophagy, a process through which cytosolic components and organelles are degraded, has recently been shown to control spine pruning in the mouse cortex, but the mechanisms through which autophagy acts remain obscure. Here, we draw on three widely studied prototypical synaptic pruning events to focus on two governing principles of spine pruning: 1) activity-dependent synaptic competition and 2) non-neuronal contributions. We briefly review what is known about autophagy in the central nervous system and its regulation by metabolic kinases. We propose a model in which autophagy in both neurons and non-neuronal cells contributes to spine pruning, and how other processes that regulate spine pruning could intersect with autophagy. We further outline future research directions to address outstanding questions on the role of autophagy in synaptic pruning.