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New insights into the pathology of Parkinson’s disease: does the peripheral autonomic system become central?


Prof. Alphonse Probst, Department of Neuropathology, Institute of Pathology, University of Basel, Schoenbeinstrasse 40, Basel 4003, Switzerland (e-mail:


Recent studies in aged, neurologically unimpaired subjects have pointed to a specific induction site of the pathological process of Parkinson’s disease (PD) in the region of the dorsal glossopharyngeus–vagus complex as well as in the anterior olfactory nucleus. From the lower brainstem, the disease process would then pursue an ascending course and involve more rostral brainstem areas, limbic structures, and eventually the cerebral cortex. One barrier to the acceptance of the caudal medullary structures as the induction site of PD pathology is that not all parts of the nervous system have been investigated for the presence of PD-associated lesions in cases of early asymptomatic PD. Using alpha-synuclein immunostaining, we investigated the brain, the sacral, and thoracic autonomic nuclei of the spinal cord as well as several components of the peripheral autonomic nervous system in a autopsy cohort of 98 neurologically unimpaired subjects aged 64 or more. Our data indicate that the autonomic nuclei of the spinal cord and the peripheral autonomic nervous system belong to the most constantly and earliest affected regions next to medullary structures and the olfactory nerves in neurologically unimpaired older individuals, thus providing a pathological basis for early premotor autonomic dysfunctions at a prodromal stage of PD.