Genetic evidence from recessively inherited Parkinson's disease has indicated a clear causative role for mitochondrial dysfunction in Parkinson's disease. This role has long been discussed based on findings that toxic inhibition of mitochondrial respiratory complex I caused parkinsonism and that tissues of patients with Parkinson's disease show complex I deficiency. Disorders of mitochondrial DNA maintenance are a common cause of inherited neurodegenerative disorders, and lead to mitochondrial DNA deletions or depletion and respiratory chain defect, including complex I deficiency. However, parkinsonism associates typically with defects of catalytic domain of mitochondrial DNA polymerase gamma. Surprisingly, however, not all mutations affecting DNA polymerase gamma manifest as parkinsonism, but, for example, spacer region mutations lead to spinocerebellar ataxia and/or severe epilepsy. Furthermore, defective Twinkle helicase, a close functional companion of DNA polymerase gamma in mitochondrial DNA replication, results in infantile-onset spinocerebellar ataxia, epilepsy or adult-onset mitochondrial myopathy, but not typically parkinsonism. Here we sought for clues for this specificity in the neurological manifestations of mitochondrial DNA maintenance disorders by studying mesencephalic neuropathology of patients with DNA polymerase gamma or Twinkle defects, with or without parkinsonism. We show here that all patients with mitochondrial DNA maintenance disorders had neuronopathy in substantia nigra, most severe in DNA polymerase gamma-associated parkinsonism. The oculomotor nucleus was also affected, but less severely. In substantia nigra, all patients had a considerable decrease of respiratory chain complex I, but other respiratory chain enzymes were not affected. Complex I deficiency did not correlate with parkinsonism, age, affected gene or inheritance. We conclude that the cell number in substantia nigra correlated well with parkinsonism in DNA polymerase gamma and Twinkle defects. However, complex I defect is a general consequence of mitochondrial DNA maintenance defects, and does not explain manifestation of parkinsonism or degree of mesencephalic cell death in patients with mitochondrial DNA maintenance disorders.
Keywords: ataxia; mitochondrial DNA; mitochondrial disorders; mitochondrial dysfunction; parkinsonism.