Is the Vulnerability of Neurons in the Substantia Nigra of Patients with Parkinson's Disease Related to Their Neuromelanin Content?


Address correspondence and reprint requests to Dr. A. Kastner at INSERM U. 289, Hôpital de la Salpêtrière, 47 Boulevard de l'Hôpital, 75013 Paris, France.


Abstract: The contribution of neuromelanin (NM) to the pathogenesis of Parkinson's disease (PD) has long been suspected. In particular, a correlation has been reported between the estimated cell loss in the mesencephalic dopaminergic cell groups and the percentage of NM-pigmented neurons in these cell groups. To test whether the amount of pigment per cell is a critical factor or whether the presence of NM within a neuron is sufficient to account for the degeneration of dopaminergic neurons, the NM content was measured in each neuron from representative sections throughout the ventral mesencephalon of four control subjects and four patients with PD. Intraneuronal NM was quantified by a densitometric method, using known amounts of synthetic melanin as standards. In control brains, the distribution of melanized neurons in the nigral complex showed a high proportion of lightly melanized neurons in the ventral tegmental area and the pars α and γ of the substantia nigra (SN), whereas heavily melanized neurons were mostly located in the pars β and lateralis of the SN. An inverse relationship was observed between the percentage of surviving neurons in PD compared with controls and the amount of NM they contain, suggesting that the vulnerability of the dopaminergic neurons is related to their NM content. Factors other than NM may be involved in the differential vulnerability of catecholaminergic neurons in PD. In particular, the constant topography of the cell loss suggests that cell position within the nigral complex is a key factor.