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Brain. 2005 Nov;128(Pt 11):2654-64. Epub 2005 Jul 6.

Alpha-synuclein redistributes to neuromelanin lipid in the substantia nigra early in Parkinson's disease.

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Prince of Wales Medical Research Institute and the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.


The distribution and tempo of neuronal loss in Parkinson's disease correlates poorly with the characteristic and more widely spread intracellular changes associated with the disease process (Lewy bodies and Lewy neurites). To determine early intracellular changes in regions where cell loss is most marked (dopaminergic A9 substantia nigra) versus regions with Lewy bodies but where cell loss is limited, we assessed 13 patients with definite Parkinson's disease at various disease stages in comparison with controls. Using immunohistochemistry for alpha-synuclein, we confirmed the concentration of this protein in the soma of normal A9 neurons and in Lewy body pathology in brainstem catecholamine neurons in Parkinson's disease. Analysis of the degree of cell loss in brainstem catecholamine cell groups revealed that only the A9 substantia nigra had consistent significant cell loss early in the disease course with greater A9 cell loss correlating with increasing disease duration. To assess the earliest intracellular changes differentiating neurons more likely to degenerate, pigmented A9 and A10 neurons with and without obvious pathology were targeted, cell size and pigment density measured, and intracellular changes in alpha-synuclein location and lipid components analysed at both the light and electron microscope levels. There were no changes observed in healthy A10 neurons in Parkinson's disease compared with controls. Pigmented A9 neurons in later stages of degeneration with obvious Lewy body formation had a significant reduction in intracellular pigment, as previously described. In contrast, A9 neurons of normal morphological appearance and no characteristic pathology in Parkinson's disease exhibited significantly increased pigment density associated with a concentration of alpha-synuclein to the lipid component of the pigment and a loss of associated cholesterol. These changes in vulnerable but apparently healthy A9 neurons occurred without any change in cell size or in the amount of intracellular pigment compared with controls. The increase in pigment density is consistent with previously reported increases associated with oxidation and iron loading, reactions known to precipitate alpha-synuclein. The selectivity of the changes observed in A9 nigral neurons suggests that these early intracellular changes predispose these neurons to more rapid cell loss in Parkinson's disease. The increased concentration of neuronal alpha-synuclein and pigment in normal A9 neurons may already predispose these neurons to precipitate alpha-synuclein around pigment-associated lipid under oxidative conditions. Overall, these changes may trigger a cascade of events leading to larger intracellular aggregates of alpha-synuclein and the dispersement of protective pigment to precipitate cell death in Parkinson's disease.

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