In contrast to our vast knowledge of the dopamine (DA) system, much less is known about the involvement of serotonin (5-HT) in neurodegenerative diseases affecting the basal ganglia. Therefore, we designed a study that aimed at characterizing the status of the striatal DA and 5-HT systems in patients who suffered from either Parkinson's (PD) or Huntington's disease (HD), compared to age-matched controls. Antibodies against tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) and 5-HT transporter (SERT) were used as markers of DA and 5-HT axonal profiles, respectively. The density and pattern of TH+ and SERT + innervation were determined by optical density measurements as well as by direct stereological estimates of labeled axon varicosities. The results reveal a significant decrease in TH immunoreactivity and TH + axon terminals throughout the striatum in both PD and HD, whereas the intensity of SERT immunostaining and the density of SERT + axon varicosities were found to be slightly increased in the striatum of PD and HD patients compared to controls. These findings reveal that the nigrostriatal DA system is significantly impaired in both PD and HD compared to the striatal 5-HT innervation, which is slightly increased in these two conditions. The striatal 5-HT augmentation observed in PD might be the result of a neural mechanism designed to compensate for DA denervation, whereas the marked atrophy of the striatum might explain the increase in the 5-HT innervation noted in HD. These findings underline the importance of the complex interplay between DA and 5-HT striatal afferents in the elaboration of appropriate motor behaviour.
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