Media Releases

Zinc’s role in the brain

October 5, 2011

Research gives insight into 50-year-old mystery – zinc important for learning and memory

TORONTO, ON — Zinc plays a crit­i­cal role in reg­u­lat­ing how neu­rons com­mu­ni­cate with one anoth­er, and could affect how mem­o­ries form and how we learn. The new research, in the cur­rent issue of Neu­ron, was authored by Xiao-an Zhang, now a chem­istry pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Scar­bor­ough (UTSC), and col­leagues at MIT and Duke Uni­ver­si­ty.

Researchers have been try­ing to pin down the role of zinc in the brain for more than fifty years, ever since sci­en­tists found high con­cen­tra­tions of the chem­i­cal in synap­tic vesi­cles, a por­tion of the neu­ron that stores neu­ro­trans­mit­ters. But it was hard to deter­mine just what zinc’s func­tion was.

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.

“As a chemist, I’m proud that I can make a con­tri­bu­tion to neu­ro­science,” says Zhang, who helped design the chem­i­cal while con­duct­ing post­doc­tor­al research in Stephen J. Lippard’s lab at MIT. He was joint first author of the paper, along with Enhui Pan from James O. McNamara’s group at Duke Uni­ver­si­ty.

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 . Long-term poten­ti­a­tion strength­ens the con­nec­tion between two neu­rons, and seems to be impor­tant for mem­o­ry and learn­ing.

Zhang is cur­rent­ly work­ing on devel­op­ing new con­trast agents that could be used in med­ical imag­ing.


For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact:

Xiao-an Zhang
UTSC, Depart­ment of Chem­istry