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Zinc Metabolism in the Brain: Relevance to Human Neurodegenerative Disorders

Zinc is an important trace element in biology. An important pool of zinc in the brain is the one present in synaptic vesicles in a subgroup of glutamatergic neurons. In this form it can be released by electrical stimulation and may serve to modulate responses at receptors for a number of different neurotransmitters. These include both excitatory and inhibitory receptors, particularly the NMDA and GABAAreceptors. This pool of zinc is the only form of zinc readily stained histochemically (the chelatable zinc pool), but constitutes only about 8% of the total zinc content in the brain. The remainder of the zinc is more or less tightly bound to proteins where it acts either as a component of the catalytic site of enzymes or in a structural capacity. The metabolism of zinc in the brain is regulated by a number of transport proteins, some of which have been recently characterized by gene cloning techniques. The intracellular concentration may be mediated both by efflux from the cell by the zinc transporter ZrT1 and by complexing with apothionein to form metallothionein. Metallothionein may serve as the source of zinc for incorporation into proteins, including a number of DNA transcription factors. However, zinc is readily released from metallothionein by disulfides, increasing concentrations of which are formed under oxidative stress. Metallothionein is a very good scavenger of free radicals, and zinc itself can also reduce oxidative stress by binding to thiol groups, decreasing their oxidation. Zinc is also a very potent inhibitor of nitric oxide synthase. Increased levels of chelatable zinc have been shown to be present in cell cultures of immune cells undergoing apoptosis. This is very reminiscent of the zinc staining of neuronal perikarya dying after an episode of ischemia or seizure activity. Thus a possible role of zinc in causing neuronal death in the brain needs to be fully investigated. Intraventricular injections of calcium EDTA have already been shown to reduce neuronal death after a period of ischemia. Pharmacological doses of zinc cause neuronal death, and some estimates indicate that extracellular concentrations of zinc could reach neurotoxic levels under pathological conditions. Zinc is released in high concentrations from the hippocampus during seizures. Unfortunately, there are contrasting observations as to whether this zinc serves to potentiate or decrease seizure activity. Zinc may have an additional role in causing death in at least some neurons damaged by seizure activity and be involved in the sprouting phenomenon which may give rise to recurrent seizure propagation in the hippocampus. In Alzheimer's disease, zinc has been shown to aggregate β-amyloid, a form which is potentially neurotoxic. The zinc-dependent transcription factors NF-κB and Sp1 bind to the promoter region of the amyloid precursor protein (APP) gene. Zinc also inhibits enzymes which degrade APP to nonamyloidogenic peptides and which degrade the soluble form of β-amyloid. The changes in zinc metabolism which occur during oxidative stress may be important in neurological diseases where oxidative stress is implicated, such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Zinc is a structural component of superoxide dismutase 1, mutations in which give rise to one form of familiar ALS. After HIV infection, zinc deficiency is found which may be secondary to immune-induced cytokine synthesis. Zinc is involved in the replication of the HIV virus at a number of sites. These observations should stimulate further research into the role of zinc in neuropathology.

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