Synaptically released zinc: physiological functions and pathological effects

Biometals. Sep-Dec 2001;14(3-4):353-66. doi: 10.1023/a:1012934207456.


In addition to its familiar role as a component of metalloproteins, zinc is also sequestered in the presynaptic vesicles of a specialized type of neurons called 'zinc-containing' neurons. Here we review the physiological and pathological effects of the release of zinc from these zinc-containing synaptic terminals. The best-established physiological role of synaptically released zinc is the tonic modulation of brain excitability through modulation of amino acid receptors; prominent pathological effects include acceleration of plaque deposition in Alzheimer's disease and exacerbation of excitotoxic neuron injury. Synaptically released zinc functions as a conventional synaptic neurotransmitter or neuromodulator, being released into the cleft, then recycled into the presynaptic terminal. Beyond this, zinc also has the highly unconventional property that it passes into postsynaptic neurons during synaptic events, functioning analogously to calcium in this regard, as a transmembrane neural signal. To stimulate comparisons of zinc signals with calcium signals, we have compiled a list of the important parameters of calcium signals and zinc signals. More speculatively, we hypothesize that zinc signals may loosely mimic phosphate 'signals' in the sense that signal zinc ions may commonly bind to proteins in a lasting manner (i.e., 'zincylating' the proteins) with consequential changes in protein structure and function.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alzheimer Disease / pathology
  • Alzheimer Disease / physiopathology
  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology
  • Calcium Signaling / physiology
  • Humans
  • Rats
  • Signal Transduction / physiology
  • Status Epilepticus / physiopathology
  • Synapses / metabolism*
  • Zinc / physiology*


  • Zinc