The NMDA receptor (NMDAR) is inhibited by synaptically released zinc. This inhibition is thought to be the result of zinc diffusion across the synaptic cleft and subsequent binding to the extracellular domain of the NMDAR. However, this model fails to incorporate the observed association of the highly zinc-sensitive NMDAR subunit GluN2A with the postsynaptic zinc transporter ZnT1, which moves intracellular zinc to the extracellular space. Here, we report that disruption of ZnT1-GluN2A association by a cell-permeant peptide strongly reduced NMDAR inhibition by synaptic zinc in mouse dorsal cochlear nucleus synapses. Moreover, synaptic zinc inhibition of NMDARs required postsynaptic intracellular zinc, suggesting that cytoplasmic zinc is transported by ZnT1 to the extracellular space in close proximity to the NMDAR. These results challenge a decades-old dogma on how zinc inhibits synaptic NMDARs and demonstrate that presynaptic release and a postsynaptic transporter organize zinc into distinct microdomains to modulate NMDAR neurotransmission.
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