• Parkinson's disease;
  • Microglia;
  • Apoptosis;
  • DNA fragmentation;
  • Cell death mechanisms


The cause and mechanism of neuronal cell death in the substantia nigra of patients with Parkinson's disease (PD) are unknown. There is also controversy about whether the cell death results from a single event followed by cell loss consistent with aging or whether there is an ongoing pathologic process. Using postmortem tissue obtained from the Parkinson's Disease Society Brain Tissue Bank in London, we have sought to establish whether apoptosis, or more specifically DNA fragmentation of neurons, is a prominent feature of nigral pathology. In addition, we have studied microglial activation in the substantia nigra as an indicator of ongoing pathology using the highly sensitive markers CR3/43 and EBM11. Reactive astrocytes have been assessed using immunostaining for glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP). Ten patients with pathologically proven PD were studied. In all cases, regardless of disease duration, severity, drug treatment, or age of the patient, there was no evidence of apoptosis in the substantia nigra as assessed by in situ end-labeling of DNA fragments using biotinylated dUTP and terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase (TdT). In contrast, a case of multiple system atrophy (MSA) served as a positive control for the technique. In this case, positive DNA end-labeling could be found in neurons and non-neuronal cells in the brain stem. In the PD cases, there was, however, localized pathology in the substantia nigra as revealed by the CR3/43 and EBM11 markers for activated microglia. This process seemed independent of disease duration and was florid even in patients with severe neuronal loss. It remains to be determined to what extent the activation of glial cells reflects progressive nigral pathology, and whether those factors which are classically associated with prominent apoptotic neuronal cell death in vivo, such as neurotrophic factor deprivation, are prime causes of nigral neuronal loss in PD. Future studies should focus on recent-onset PD or incidental Lewy body disease to further address these questions.