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Scientists link neurological diseases to zinc levels

Zinc should be part of any balanced diet, but it also regulates signals in your brain.

Researchers at Duke University Medical Center published the results of a collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemists that examined the role of zinc in neuron communication—the process that facilitates the brain’s functions. The study found that zinc plays a key role in signal transmission between neurons in the hippocampus—the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory, said senior author James McNamara, Carl R. Deane professor of neuroscience and director at the Duke Center for Translational Neuroscience. He added that investigating zinc’s role in affecting the interaction between neurons in the brain could further scientists’ understanding of neurological diseases such as epilepsy and Alzheimer’s .

“What [zinc] did [in the brain] has remained controversial for 60 years,” McNamara said. “What we discovered and reported last week was that zinc is controlling the efficiency of communication between neurons.”

Chemists at MIT developed a new highly efficient chelate—a chemical that has the ability to bond to ions such as zinc—in order to monitor zinc’s path in the brain and its effect on learning and memory, said Steve Lippard, professor of chemistry at MIT and a contributor to the study published in the journal Neuron Sept. 21. The new chemical is called ZX1.

“[ZX1] works much faster than the [chemical] that had been used by people in the past,” Lippard said. “So we know in molecular detail the chemistry that’s going on between our chelating agent ZX1 and zinc once it’s released.”

McNamara added that individuals with neurological diseases do not process zinc in the same way that healthy individuals do. In Alzheimer’s patients, this leads to zinc buildups in the spaces between neurons in the hippocampus. It is not clear, however, how this specifically affects disease.

“To even begin to think about how [zinc buildup] might occur, you really have to understand what the heck zinc is doing,” McNamara said. “That’s what we were talking about in this paper.”

Lippard said, however, that much work remains before this information can be used in clinical applications.

“The brain is very complicated, and it’s going to take a while before fundamental discoveries can be translated, but it’s important to work toward that goal,” he said.

Though the findings may not have immediate clinical implications, they are nonetheless significant, said Enhui Pan, co-author and assistant research professor in McNamara’s laboratory.

“The connection is a very fundamental finding from a clinical treatment point of view,” Pan said. “The finding could make some people think—now they’ll really have a direct application for epilepsy treatment.”

McNamara noted that altering zinc levels in an individual’s diet is unlikely to effectively combat neurological illness.

“The diets of the vast majority of Americans are likely to contain reasonable amounts of zinc,” McNamara said. “But I think it’s possible that the way the brain handles zinc may somehow be defective even if you got normal amounts in your diet.”

Carl Cho, a director of risk management at Citigroup who has experienced seizures in the past, said he was hesitant to express too much excitement over the study.

“Is this going to lead to another fad?” Cho said. “But if there is some real science behind it… then my view is, why not? Why shouldn’t something like that be looked into more?”

McNamara said his lab will continue to collaborate with Lippard and his colleagues at MIT.

“We want to drill down further and understand the various molecular events by which zinc enhances the efficiency of communication between neurons,” he said. “We want to understand exactly how zinc does this.”

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