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Brain. 2015 Mar;138(Pt 3):653-63. doi: 10.1093/brain/awu369. Epub 2014 Dec 23.

Imaging acetylcholinesterase density in peripheral organs in Parkinson's disease with 11C-donepezil PET.

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1 Department of Nuclear Medicine and PET Centre, Aarhus University Hospital, Denmark.
2 Department of Neurology, Aarhus University Hospital, Denmark.
3 Department of Health Science and Technology, Aalborg University, Denmark.
1 Department of Nuclear Medicine and PET Centre, Aarhus University Hospital, Denmark 4 Division of Brain Sciences, Imperial College, London, UK.
1 Department of Nuclear Medicine and PET Centre, Aarhus University Hospital, Denmark


Parkinson's disease is associated with early parasympathetic dysfunction leading to constipation and gastroparesis. It has been suggested that pathological α-synuclein aggregations originate in the gut and ascend to the brainstem via the vagus. Our understanding of the pathogenesis and time course of parasympathetic denervation in Parkinson's disease is limited and would benefit from a validated imaging technique to visualize the integrity of parasympathetic function. The positron emission tomography tracer 5-[(11)C]-methoxy-donepezil was recently validated for imaging acetylcholinesterase density in the brain and peripheral organs. Donepezil is a high-affinity ligand for acetylcholinesterase-the enzyme that catabolizes acetylcholine in cholinergic synapses. Acetylcholinesterase histology has been used for many years for visualizing cholinergic neurons. Using 5-[(11)C]-methoxy-donepezil positron emission tomography, we studied 12 patients with early-to-moderate Parkinson's disease (three female; age 64 ± 9 years) and 12 age-matched control subjects (three female; age 62 ± 8 years). We collected clinical information about motor severity, constipation, gastroparesis, and other parameters. Heart rate variability measurements and gastric emptying scintigraphies were performed in all subjects to obtain objective measures of parasympathetic function. We detected significantly decreased (11)C-donepezil binding in the small intestine (-35%; P = 0.003) and pancreas (-22%; P = 0.001) of the patients. No correlations were found between the (11)C-donepezil signal and disease duration, severity of constipation, gastric emptying time, and heart rate variability. In Parkinson's disease, the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus undergoes severe degeneration and pathological α-synuclein aggregations are also seen in nerve fibres innervating the gastro-intestinal tract. In contrast, the enteric nervous system displays little or no loss of cholinergic neurons. Decreases in (11)C-donepezil binding may, therefore, represent a marker of parasympathetic denervation of internal organs, but further validation studies are needed.


Parkinson's disease; acetylcholinesterase; autonomic nervous system; parasympathetic nervous system; positron emission tomography

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