Researchers Explore Role of Zinc in How the Brain Processes Sound

By: Arvind Suresh

Researchers Explore Role of Zinc in How the Brain Processes SoundResearchers at the University of Pittsburgh have received a $1.24 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study a previously unknown link between the metal zinc and the brain circuits that process sound. The findings could provide insight into how the brain dampens its responses to constant background noise or repetitive loud sounds.

Pitt School of Medicine faculty Dr. Elias Aizenman, professor of neurobiology, and Dr. Thanos Tzounopoulos, endowed professor and vice chair of research in the department of otoralyngology, will embark on a project that will advance understanding about how the brain adapts to different sounds. Overall, the project is designed to create a new framework for approaching and interpreting the role of the auditory system in the processing of sound.

An Israeli arm of the study, headed by Dr. Michal Hershfinkel of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, is funded by the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF). Aizenman and Hershfinkel have previously collaborated on BSF-funded studies on how neurons use zinc as a signaling molecule.

Previous joint studies by the three investigators began to reveal clues about how zinc modulates sound processing and adaptation to sound. They determined that changes in sound rapidly altered proteins that regulate zinc levels in the auditory cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that processes sound.

“We showed that once zinc is released in a sound-dependent manner, it changes the response of neurons in the brain that process sound,” said Tzounopoulos, an expert on zinc neurobiology and auditory processing.

With the help of the NSF-BSF partnership grant, the team is going further to analyze neuronal zinc and its effects on the auditory system. By revealing the basic roles of zinc in nerve cells, the investigators may begin to understand how the brain discriminates between frequency or level of sound.

Beyond research, the current NSF-BSF project will also establish a U.S.-Israel student exchange program, as well as target underserved student populations both in countries. The students will be trained in problem-solving at behavioral, neural and molecular levels of analysis.

“We are delighted that the ongoing collaboration among the three laboratories has significantly enhanced the training opportunities of our students and postdoctoral research scholars,” Aizeman said. “We are making new discoveries, and at the same time, we are training the next generation who will make their own discoveries.”