Background: Patients with Parkinson disease characteristically exhibit an increased echogenicity of the substantia nigra (SN) on transcranial sonography, a new neuroimaging technique. The same echo feature of the SN can be identified in 9% of healthy adults.
Objective: To evaluate the relevance of the echogenic SN in healthy adults.
Design: In the first part of the study, 10 healthy subjects younger than 40 years with a distinct SN hyperechogenicity underwent extensive neurological, motor, neuropsychological, and fluorine 18-dopa positron emission tomographic ([18F]-dopa PET) examinations. Results were compared with those of 10 subjects with a low echogenic SN. In the second part of the study, the postmortem brains of 20 patients without extrapyramidal disorders during their lifetime were sonographically examined with a particular focus on SN echogenicity. Subsequently, one half of the brain was prepared for heavy metal analysis, the other for a histological examination.
Results: Healthy subjects with SN hyperechogenicity exhibited a significant reduction of the [18F]-dopa uptake, especially in the putamen (Wilcoxon matched pair test: left side, P =.006; right side, P =.009), whereas their neuropsychological and motor performance were normal. Postmortem studies showed that the echogenicity of the SN correlated with its iron content.
Conclusions: Increased echogenicity of the SN, characteristically seen in Parkinson disease, is related to a functional impairment of the nigrostriatal system (even in young healthy adults) that can be revealed by [18F]-dopa PET studies. Substantia nigra hyperechogenicity is related to a higher tissue iron level, which is known to enhance the cells' generation of reactive oxygen specimens. Therefore, we hypothesize that transcranial sonography may identify a susceptibility marker for the development of nigral injury that can be detected early in life, prior to the onset of Parkinson disease.