Inverse Relationship between the Contents of Neuromelanin Pigment and the Vesicular Monoamine Transporter-2: Human Midbrain Dopamine Neurons

Chang Lin Liang, Omar Nelson, Umar Yazdani, Parichehr Pasbakhsh, Dwight C. German

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The dopaminergic neurons in the ventral substantia nigra (SN) are significantly more vulnerable to degeneration in Parkinson's disease (PD) than the dopaminergic neurons in the ventral tegmental area (VTA). The ventral SN neurons also contain significantly more neuromelanin pigment than the dopaminergic neurons in the VTA. In vitro data indicate that neuromelanin pigment is formed from the excess cytosolic catecholamine that is not accumulated into synaptic vesicles by the vesicular monoamine transporter-2 (VMAT2). By using quantitative immunohistochemical methods in human postmortem brain, we sought to examine the relative contents of VMAT2 within neurons that contain different amounts of neuromelanin pigment. The immunostaining intensity (ISI) was measured for VMAT2 and also for the rate-limiting enzyme for the synthesis of dopamine, tyrosine hydroxylase (TH). ISI measures were taken from the ventral SN region where neurons are most vulnerable to degeneration in PD, nigrosome-1 (N1); from the ventral SN region where cells are moderately vulnerable to degeneration in PD, the matrix (M); and from VTA neurons near the exit of the third nerve (subregion III). The data indicate that 1) subregion III neurons have significantly higher levels of VMAT2 ISI compared with N1 neurons (more than twofold) and M neurons (45%); 2) there is an inverse relationship between VMAT2 ISI and neuromelanin pigment in the N1 and III neurons; 3) there is an inverse relationship between VMAT2 ISI and the vulnerability to degeneration in PD in the N1, M, and III subregions; and 4) neurons with high VMAT2 ISI also have high TH ISI. These data support the hypothesis that midbrain dopaminergic neurons that synthesize greater amounts of dopamine have more vesicular storage capacity for action potential-induced release of transmitter and that the ventral SN neurons accumulate the most neuromelanin pigment, in part because they have the least VMAT2 protein.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)97-106
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Comparative Neurology
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 17 2004



  • Nigrosome-1
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Substantia nigra
  • Tyrosine hydroxylase

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)

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