Zinc should be part of any balanced diet, but it also regulates signals in your brain. It’s been found to play a critical role in coordinating communication between cells in the brain, possibly governing the formation of memories and controlling the occurrence of epileptic seizures.
Researchers at Duke University Medical Center, published the results of a collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemists that examines the role of zinc in neuron communication — the process that facilitates the brain’s functions. The study found that zinc plays a key role in signal transmission between neurons in the hippocampus — a zinc-enriched region of the brain responsible for learning and memory — and where disrupted communication may contribute to epilepsy.
The findings were published online in the journal Neuron.
“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. “This addresses a longstanding controversy in the field.”
“The connection is a very fundamental finding from a clinical treatment point of view,” said Enhui Pan, co-author and assistant research professor in McNamara’s laboratory. “The finding could make some people think — now they’ll really have a direct application for epilepsy treatment.”
But balance is essential. Because, while zinc is critical to communication, over-communication by the brain cells highlighted in the study, was known to occur in epilepsy, pointing to a link between zinc and the condition. And when too much zinc accumulates, cells may become dysfunctional or die.
So, how much zinc should you take?
McNamara noted that zinc supplements are commonly sold over the counter to treat several different brain disorders, including depression. It isn’t clear whether these supplements modify zinc content in the brain, or modify the efficiency of communication between these nerve cells.
He emphasized that people taking zinc supplements should be cautious, pending needed information on the desired zinc concentrations and how oral supplements affect them.
The best sources of zinc from our diet are found in seafood such as oysters and crabmeat, red meat, poultry, baked beans, pecans, milk and fortified foods such as breakfast cereals. But, McNamara noted that altering zinc levels in an individual’s diet is unlikely to effectively combat neurological illness.
“The diets of the vast majority of Americans are likely to contain reasonable amounts of zinc,” McNamara said. “But I think it’s possible that the way the brain handles zinc may somehow be defective, even if you got normal amounts in your diet.”
The USDA recommended daily allowance, or RDA, varies based on age, gender and other considerations. The zinc RDA for adults 19 years of age and older is 11 mg for males and 8 mg for females, 11 mg for pregnant women and 12 mg for lactating women.
However, since anti-epilepsy medicine can affect zinc assimilation, for your recommended dose, it would be best to consult with your doctor.
In closing, McNamara said, “We want to drill down further and understand the various molecular events by which zinc enhances the efficiency of communication between neurons. We want to understand exactly how zinc does this.”