show that prion protein regulates the amount of zinc in the brain by helping cells absorb it through channels in the cell surface. It is already known that high levels of zinc between brain cells are linked with diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
Professor Nigel Hooper from the University's Faculty of Biological Sciences explains: "With ageing, the level of prion protein in our brains falls and less zinc is absorbed by brain cells, which could explain why our memory and learning capabilities change as we get older. By studying both their roles in the body, we hope to uncover exactly how prion and zinc affect memory and learning. This could help us better understand how to maintain healthy brain cells and limit the effects of ageing on the brain."
Whilst the abnormal infectious form of prion - which causes Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in humans and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle - has been extensively studied, the Leeds team is among the first to investigate the role of the 'normal' form of the protein.
Lead researcher, Dr Nicole Watts, says: "Zinc is thought to aid signalling in the brain as it's released into the space between brain cells. However, when there's too much zinc between the brain cells it can become toxic. High levels of zinc in this area between the brain cells are known to be a factor in neurodegenerative diseases, so regulating the amount of absorption by the cells is crucial."
The research, funded by the Medical Research Council, Wellcome Trust and Alzheimer's Research UK, may have implications for how we treat - and possibly prevent - neurodegenerative diseases in the future.
Dr Simon Ridley, Head of Research at Alzheimer's Research UK, said: "We're pleased to have helped support this study, which has uncovered new information that could one day aid the development of new treatments for Alzheimer's. One next step would be to understand how regulating zinc levels may affect the progress of the disease. Results like these have the potential to lead to new and effective treatments - but for that to happen, we must build on these results and continue investing in research."
Dave Westhead and colleagues in Experimental Haematology, Cancer Research UK (Jan 2015), £700,521
Sheena Radford, Mark Harris, Peter Stockley, Alan Berry, Alex O'Neill, Thomas Edwards, Adrian Goldman, Anastasia Zhuravleva, Wellcome Trust (Jan 2015), £443,015
Bill Kunin, EU (Jan 2015), £157,490
John Colyer, Leeds Teaching Hospitals Charitable Fund (Jan 2015), £40,000
Chris Hassall, Royal Society (Dec 2014), £14,500
Ryan Seipke, Royal Society (Nov 2014), £13,700
Alan Berry, Wellcome Trust (Oct 2014), £749,865
Ian Hope, Marie-Anne Shaw, BBSRC (Oct 2014), £396,565
Alison Ashcroft, Peter Stckley, Sheena Radford, Nic Stonehouse, David Brockwell, Darren Tomlinson, BBSRC (Oct 2014), £340,937
Les Firbank, Joe Holden, BBSRC (Oct 2014), £210,302
Darren Tomlinson and colleagues in Chemistry and Pathology, anatomy and Tumour Biology, Dr Hadwen Trusy (Oct 2014), £194,475
Paul Knox, EU (Oct 2014), £167,229
Martin Stacey and colleagues in Medicine & Health, Pfizer (Oct 2014), £90,453
Darren Tomlinson and colleagues in Experimental Oncology, YCR (Oct 2014), £69,480
Andrew Macdonald, Jamel Mankouri, Kidney Research Fund UK (Oct 2014), £58,878
Mike McPherson and colleagues in Dentistry and Engineering, Wellcome Trust (Oct 2014), £58,437
Dave Westhead and colleagues in Experimental Haemotology, Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research (Sep 2014), £281,424
Emmanuel Paci and colleagues in Chemistry, BBSRC (Sep 2014), £636,759
Andrew Peel, BBSRC (Sep 2014), £371,598
Lars Jeuken, Stephen Evans, BBSRC (Sep 2014), £333,684
Lars Jeuken, BBSRC (Sep 2014), £313,463
Michelle Peckham, Mark Harris, Rao Sivaprasadarao, Eileen Ingham, Nic Stonehouse, Nikita Gamper, Wellcome Trust (Sep 2014), £192,763
Neil Ranson, BBSRC (Aug 2014), £355,253
Stuart Egginton, BHF (Aug 2014), £271,094
Darren Tomlinson, Mike McPherson, Technology Strategy Board (Aug 2014), £98,665
Peter Henderson, Leverhulme Trust (Aug 2014), £15,222
Mike McPherson (and colleagues in the School of Chemistry), EPSRC (Jul 2014), £819,880
Peter Stockley, Neil Ranson, BBSRC (Jul 2014), £455,787
Sheena Radford, Univesity of Michigan (Jul 2014), £138,452
Ryan Seipke, British Society Antimicrobial Chemistry (Jun 2014), £11,960
John Trinick, BHF (Jun 2014), £222,614
Chris West, Leverhulme Trust (Jun 2014), £181,241
Jon Lippiat, Darren Tomlinson, BBSRC (May 2014), £125,174
Christine Foyer, Royal Society (May 2014), £24,000