The structure of neuromelanin as studied by chemical degradative methods


Address correspondence and reprint requests to Dr K. Wakamatsu, Department of Chemistry, Fujita Health University School of Health Sciences, Toyoake, Aichi 470–1192, Japan. E-mail:


The biosynthesis, structure and function of neuromelanin (NM), the dark brown melanin-like pigment present in the substantia nigra (SN), are not well characterized, in spite of the possible involvement of NM in the etiology and pathogenesis of Parkinson's disease. NM was isolated from the SN of five non-Parkinsonian human brains. NM and synthetic melanins, employed as models, were characterized by chemical analysis. Alkaline hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) oxidation of NM generated four degradation products, pyrrole-2,3-dicarboxylic acid (PDCA), pyrrole-2,3,5-tricarboxylic acid (PTCA), thiazole-4,5-dicarboxylic acid (TDCA) and thiazole-2,3,5-tricarboxylic acid (TTCA), whose ratios, especially the TTCA to PDCA ratio, indicate that NM is derived mostly from dopamine (DA) with 25% incorporation of cysteine (Cys) in the form of a benzothiazine structure. Hydriodic acid (HI) reductive hydrolysis of NM yielded 4-amino-3-hydroxyphenylethylamine (4-AHPEA) as a marker of cysteinyldopamine (CysDA)-derived units. The 4-AHPEA to PDCA ratio indicates a 21% incorporation of CysDA-derived units into NM. These degradative experiments also suggest that DOPA is not incorporated into NM to a significant extent (approximately 6% the level of DA). It is concluded that the TTCA to PDCA ratio is a useful indicator of CysDA-derived units in NM, and NM consists mainly of DA-melanin with some contribution from CysDA-melanin. The involvement of DA and CysDA as building blocks of NM demonstrates the detoxifying role of NM synthesis, since it prevents the intraneuronal accumulation of DA and CysDA, which would cause toxic effects.