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J Cereb Blood Flow Metab. 2011 Oct;31(10):2065-75. doi: 10.1038/jcbfm.2011.63. Epub 2011 Apr 27.

Distribution of vesicular monoamine transporter 2 protein in human brain: implications for brain imaging studies.

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  • 1Human Brain Laboratory, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.


The choice of reference region in positron emission tomography (PET) human brain imaging of the vesicular monoamine transporter 2 (VMAT2), a marker of striatal dopamine innervation, has been arbitrary, with cerebellar, whole cerebral, frontal, or occipital cortices used. To establish whether levels of VMAT2 are in fact low in these cortical areas, we measured VMAT2 protein distribution by quantitative immunoblotting in autopsied normal human brain (n=6). Four or five species of VMAT2 immunoreactivity (75, 55, 52, 45, 35 kDa) were detected, which were all markedly reduced in intensity in nigrostriatal regions of patients with parkinsonian conditions versus matched controls (n=9 to 10 each). Using the intact VMAT2 immunoreactivity, cerebellar and cerebral neocortices had levels of the transporter >100-fold lower than the VMAT2-rich striatum and with no significant differences among the cortical regions. We conclude that human cerebellar and cerebral cortices contain negligible VMAT2 protein versus the striatum and, in this respect, all satisfy a criterion for a useful reference region for VMAT2 imaging. The slightly lower PET signal for VMAT2 binding in occipital (the currently preferred reference region) versus cerebellar cortex might not therefore be explained by differences in VMAT2 protein itself but possibly by other imaging variables, for example, partial volume effects.

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