The contribution of the dopamine-synthetic capacity of nigral neuronal subregions to their vulnerability to degeneration in idiopathic Parkinson's disease (IPD) was explored using semiquantitative in situ hybridization to study expression of mRNA encoding the rate-limiting dopamine synthetic enzyme, tyrosine hydroxylase (TH). Expression of mRNA, the structural protein, β-tubulin, and the glycolytic enzyme, fructose-1,6, biphosphate aldolase (aldolase C) was studied in parallel in individual neurons of the substantia nigra pars compacta (SNc) in matched groups of IPD and control subjects. TH mRNA expression was found to be heterogeneously expressed in nigral neurons in control and IPD subjects. There was no significant difference in mean values for TH mRNA expression between control and IPD cases and none between nigral subregions, either in control subjects or in established IPD subjects in this study, but there was evidence for a selective upregulation of TH mRNA expression in non-melanized neurons in IPD. There was no relationship between TH mRNA expression disease duration or L-dopa dosage in the IPD group. Mean TH mRNA values for two additional 40-year-old control subjects fell within the range of values of the aged-control group. Aldolase C and β-tubulin expression did not differ between control and IPD groups or between nigral subregions.
These findings suggest that regulation of dopamine synthesis at the level of the cell body does not play a part in determining the pattern of nigral cell vulnerability in IPD. The heterogeneous pattern of TH synthesis was not age-dependent and may be of physiological significance in nigral function. There was no evidence for compensatory upregulation of TH synthesis in surviving melanized neurons in IPD but non-melanized neurons may be involved in this process. Surviving nigral neurons in IPD appear to retain the capacity for normal aldolase C and β-tubulin peptide synthesis. Long-term L-dopa treatment does not appear to compromise normal function of nigral dopaminergic neurons.