Shank3 is a multidomain scaffold protein localized to the postsynaptic density of excitatory synapses. Functional studies in vivo and in vitro support the concept that Shank3 is critical for synaptic plasticity and the trans-synaptic coupling between the reliability of presynaptic neurotransmitter release and postsynaptic responsiveness. However, how Shank3 regulates synaptic strength remains unclear. The C terminus of Shank3 contains a sterile alpha motif (SAM) domain that is essential for its postsynaptic localization and also binds zinc, thus raising the possibility that changing zinc levels modulate Shank3 function in dendritic spines. In support of this hypothesis, we find that zinc is a potent regulator of Shank3 activation and dynamics in rat hippocampal neurons. Moreover, we show that zinc modulation of synaptic transmission is Shank3 dependent. Interestingly, an autism spectrum disorder (ASD)-associated variant of Shank3 (Shank3(R87C)) retains its zinc sensitivity and supports zinc-dependent activation of AMPAR-mediated synaptic transmission. However, elevated zinc was unable to rescue defects in trans-synaptic signaling caused by the R87C mutation, implying that trans-synaptic increases in neurotransmitter release are not necessary for the postsynaptic effects of zinc. Together, these data suggest that Shank3 is a key component of a zinc-sensitive signaling system, regulating synaptic strength that may be impaired in ASD.
SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT: Shank3 is a postsynaptic protein associated with neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism and schizophrenia. In this study, we show that Shank3 is a key component of a zinc-sensitive signaling system that regulates excitatory synaptic transmission. Intriguingly, an autism-associated mutation in Shank3 partially impairs this signaling system. Therefore, perturbation of zinc homeostasis may impair, not only synaptic functionality and plasticity, but also may lead to cognitive and behavioral abnormalities seen in patients with psychiatric disorders.