6 October 2011
Zinc's role in the brain revealed
by Kate Melville
Researchers have discovered that zinc plays a critical role in regulating how the neurons in our brain communicate with one another as well as affecting how our memories form. The new findings, published in the journal Neuron, are the result of research by Xiao-an Zhang, at the University of Toronto Scarborough, and co-researchers at MIT and Duke University.
Neuroscientists have been trying to pin down the role of zinc in the brain for more than fifty years, ever since they found high concentrations of the chemical in synaptic vesicles, the part of the neuron that stores neurotransmitters.
In the new work, the researchers designed a chemical called ZX1 that would bind with zinc rapidly after it was released from the vesicles but before it could complete its journey across the synapse. Using the chemical, they were able to observe how neurons behaved when deprived of zinc.
The researchers studied neurons in a brain region called the hippocampus, which is associated with learning and memory formation. They found that removing zinc interfered with a process called long-term potentiation, which strengthens the connection between two neurons, and is believed to be important for memory and learning.