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The flow of copper in the brain has a previously unrecognized role in cell death, learning and memory, according to research at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. The researchers' findings suggest that copper and its transporter, a protein called Atp7a, are vital to human thinking. They speculate that variations in the genes coding for Atp7a, as well as other proteins of copper homeostasis, could partially account for differences in thinking among individuals.
Using rat and mouse nerve cells to study the role of copper in the brain, the researchers found that the Atp7a protein shuttles copper to neural synapses, the junctions that allow nerves to talk to one another.
At synapses, the metal ions affect important components responsible for making neural connections stronger or weaker. The changing strength of neural connections — called synaptic plasticity — accounts for, among other things, our ability to remember and learn.