Zinc is Vital for Learning, Memory, & Synaptic Plasticity

October 15, 2011 | Byron J. Richards, Board Certified Clinical Nutritionist

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Zinc is Vital for Learning, Memory, & Synaptic Plasticity
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New research has proven for the first time that zinc is a vital nutrient for healthy nerve transmission, especially involved with learning, memory, and the formation of new nerve connections (synaptic plasticity). “We discovered that zinc is essential to control the efficiency of communication between two critical populations of nerve cells in the hippocampus,” said James McNamara, M.D., senior author and chair of the Department of Neurobiology at Duke.

It has long been known that zinc is stored in nerve cells, especially in activating nerves that are glutamine-driven. It turns out that zinc is vital for proper activation of these nerves, thereby enabling memory and learning to take place. This is because zinc is crucial to a form of communication called, long-term potentiation (LTP), which is a long-lasting enhancement in synergistic signal transmission between two neurons. The zinc-dependent LTP strengthening of nerve cell connections and communication allows memories to form and learning to occur.

Surprisingly, the researchers also discovered that zinc regulates the brakes for this process as well. In other words, zinc is also responsible for this process not getting too intense, which is called excitotoxic. Excitotoxic nerve problems are associated with over-activation of nerves due to inflammation.

Zinc deficiency will therefore impair learning, memory, and human ability. Vegetarians are at particular risk for zinc deficiency since zinc is highly concentrated in red meat. Athletes are also at risk, since zinc is lost in sweat. Lack of sex drive, for men and women, is a common symptom of zinc deficiency, as is slow growth in children (which could also be iron for children). White spots on the fingernails are a classic zinc deficiency symptom. Zinc is also vital for the proper sense of taste, smell and balance.

This new study shows that zinc adequacy is important for healthy brain function and should be added to the list of nutrients that are good for brain health.

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