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Zinc is Critical Nutrient for Memory and Learning


Zinc is an essential mineral naturally present in some foods such as seafood, meat and poultry, legumes, whole grains, and some nuts. The nutrient is involved in many aspects of cellular metabolism and supports normal growth and development. One very important role that zinc plays in the body is that of neuron communication, which affects memories and learning, but until now, researchers weren’t sure how this happened.

Chemistry Professor Xiao-an Zhang and colleagues 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. This allowed the team to observe how neurons behaved when they were deprived of zinc.

The researchers studied neurons in the portion of the brain called the hippocampus, which is associated with learning and memory formation. Zhang and his team found that removing zinc interfered with a process known as long-term potentiation (LTP) which strengthens the connections between neurons and is a major cellular mechanism that underlies learning and memory.

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LTP overall is not completely understood as the process is governed by multiple mechanisms that vary by species and brain region. It was first observed in 1966 in rabbits by Terje Lømo who was studying short-term memory in the hippocampus. Since, long-term potentiation has become important to clinical research in the area of Alzheimers disease which involves degenerative changes in part in the hippocampus.

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"As a chemist, I'm proud that I can make a contribution to neuroscience," says Zhang, who is currently working on developing new contrast agents that could be used in medical imaging.

The study, published in the current issue of the journal Neuron, was conducted in collaboration between the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Duke University in North Carolina.

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The Recommended Dietary Allowance for zinc in adults greater than 19 years is 11 milligrams for males and 8 milligrams for females. Among foods with the greatest amount of zinc per serving are oysters (76.7 mg), beef shanks (8.9 mg) and Alaska king crab (6.5mg). Vegetarian sources of zinc include fortified breakfast cereals, baked beans, cashews, chickpeas and kidney beans.

In addition to the positive influences on brain health, zinc is also important for immune health, protein creation, and the proper sense of taste and smell.

Image credit: Morguefile