Zinc: an underappreciated modulatory factor of brain function

Biochem Pharmacol. 2014 Oct 15;91(4):426-35. doi: 10.1016/j.bcp.2014.08.002. Epub 2014 Aug 15.


The divalent cation, zinc is the second most abundant metal in the human body and is indispensable for life. Zinc concentrations must however, be tightly regulated as deficiencies are associated with multiple pathological conditions while an excess can be toxic. Zinc plays an important role as a cofactor in protein folding and function, e.g. catalytic interactions, DNA recognition by zinc finger proteins and modulation ion channel activity. There are 24 mammalian proteins specific for zinc transport that are subdivided in two groups with opposing functions: ZnT proteins reduce cytosolic zinc concentration while ZIP proteins increase it. The mammalian brain contains a significant amount of zinc, with 5-15% concentrated in synaptic vesicles of glutamatergic neurons alone. Accumulated in these vesicles by the ZnT3 transporter, zinc is released into the synaptic cleft at concentrations from nanomolar at rest to high micromolar during active neurotransmission. Low concentrations of zinc modulate the activity of a multitude of voltage- or ligand-gated ion channels, indicating that this divalent cation must be taken into account in the analysis of the pathophysiology of CNS disorders including epilepsy, schizophrenia and Alzheimer's disease. In the context of the latest findings, we review the role of zinc in the central nervous system and discuss the relevance of the most recent association between the zinc transporter, ZIP8 and schizophrenia. An enhanced understanding of zinc transporters in the context of ion channel modulation may offer new avenues in identifying novel therapeutic entities that target neurological disorders.

Keywords: Brain function; Ion channels; Neurotransmission; Transporters; Zinc.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / drug effects
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / drug therapy
  • Nervous System Diseases / drug therapy
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology
  • Zinc / physiology*
  • Zinc / therapeutic use
  • Zinc / toxicity


  • Zinc