The role of metals in neurodegenerative processes: Aluminum, manganese, and zinc

Paolo Zatta, Roberto Lucchini, Susan J. Van Rensburg, Andrew Taylor

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

270 Scopus citations


Until the last decade, little attention was given by the neuroscience community to the neurometabolism of metals. However, the neurobiology of heavy metals is now receiving growing interest, since it has been linked to major neurodegenerative diseases. In the present review some metals that could possibly be involved in neurodegeneration are discussed. Two of them, manganese and zinc, are essential metals while aluminum is non-essential. Aluminum has long been known as a neurotoxic agent. It is an etiopathogenic factor in diseases related to long-term dialysis treatment, and it has been controversially invoked as an aggravating factor or cofactor in Alzheimer's disease as well as in other neurodegenerative diseases. Manganese exposure can play an important role in causing Parkinsonian disturbances, possibly enhancing physiological aging of the brain in conjunction with genetic predisposition. An increased environmental burden of manganese may have deleterious effects on more sensitive subgroups of the population, with sub-threshold neurodegeneration in the basal ganglia, generating a pre-Parkinsonian condition. In the case of zinc, there has as yet been no evidence that it is involved in the etiology of neurodegenerative diseases in humans. Zinc is redox-inactive and, as a result of efficient homeostatic control, does not accumulate in excess. However, adverse symptoms in humans are observed on inhalation of zinc fumes, or accidental ingestion of unusually large amounts of zinc. Also, high concentrations of zinc have been found to kill bacteria, viruses, and cultured cells. Some of the possible mechanisms for cell death are reviewed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)15-28
Number of pages14
JournalBrain Research Bulletin
Issue number1
StatePublished - 15 Nov 2003
Externally publishedYes


  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Epilepsy
  • Manganism
  • Parkinson's disease


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