• Parkinson's disease;
  • dopamine;
  • substantia nigra;
  • neuromelanin;
  • stereology;
  • MPTP


Increasing incidence of Parkinson's disease with advancing age suggests that age-related processes predispose the nigrostriatal dopaminergic system to neurodegeneration. Several hypotheses concerning the effects of aging on nigrostriatal neurons were assessed in this study using a non-human primate model. First, we examined the possibility that the total number of dopaminergic neurons decline in the substantia nigra as a function of age. Stereological counting based on both tyrosine hydroxylase immunoreactivity (TH-ir) and neuromelanin (NM) content revealed no difference in cell number between young, middle-aged and old squirrel monkeys. We then determined whether advancing age changed the relative proportion of neurons characterized by 1) TH-ir in the absence of NM, 2) the presence of both TH-ir and NM, or 3) NM without TH-ir. Indeed, a progressive age-related depletion of TH only cells was paralleled by an increase in NM only neurons. The possibility that these changes could underlie a functional impairment of the nigrostriatal system was supported by striatal dopamine measurements showing a decrease in older monkeys. Finally, we tested the hypotheses that aging may enhance cell vulnerability to injury and that different dopaminergic subpopulations display varying degrees of susceptibility. When monkeys were exposed to the neurotoxicant 1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine, cell loss was markedly more pronounced in older animals, and the ranking of vulnerability was TH only < TH/NM < NM only cells. The data indicate that, even in the absence of an overall neuronal loss, changes in the characteristics of dopaminergic cells reflect functional deficits and increased vulnerability to injury with age. NM content appears to be an important marker of these age-related effects. J. Comp. Neurol. 471:387–395, 2004. © 2004 Wiley-Liss, Inc.