Parkinson's disease (PD) is characterised by the progressive loss of nigral dopamine neurons and the presence of synucleinopathy. Overexpression of α-synuclein in vivo using viral vectors has opened interesting possibilities to model PD-like pathology in rodents. However, the attempts made so far have failed to show a consistent behavioural phenotype and pronounced dopamine neurodegeneration. Using a more efficient adeno-associated viral (AAV) vector construct, which includes a WPRE enhancer element and uses the neuron-specific synapsin-1 promoter to drive the expression of human wild-type α-synuclein, we have now been able to achieve increased levels of α-synuclein in the transduced midbrain dopamine neurons sufficient to induce profound deficits in motor function, accompanied by reduced expression of proteins involved in dopamine neurotransmission and a time-dependent loss of nigral dopamine neurons, that develop progressively over 2-4 months after vector injection. As in human PD, nigral cell loss was preceded by degenerative changes in striatal axons and terminals, and the appearance of α-synuclein positive inclusions in dystrophic axons and dendrites, supporting the idea that α-synuclein-induced pathology hits the axons and terminals first and later progresses to involve also the cell bodies. The time-course of changes seen in the AAV-α-synuclein treated animals defines distinct stages of disease progression that matches the pre-symptomatic, early symptomatic, and advanced stages seen in PD patients. This model provides new interesting possibilities for studies of stage-specific pathologic mechanisms and identification of targets for disease-modifying therapeutic interventions linked to early or late stages of the disease.
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