There is morphological evidence for differential alterations in striatal medium-sized spiny neurons (MSNs) giving rise to the direct and indirect output pathways in Huntington's disease (HD). MSNs of the indirect pathway appear to be particularly vulnerable and markers for these neurons are lost early in postmortem brains and in genetic mouse models. In contrast, MSNs of the direct pathway appear to be relatively spared in the early stages. Because of the great morphological and electrophysiological similarities between MSNs of these pathways, until recently it was difficult to tease apart their functional alterations in HD models. The recent use of the enhanced green fluorescent protein gene as a reporter to identify dopamine D1 (direct pathway) and D2 (indirect pathway) receptor-expressing MSNs has made it possible to examine synaptic function in each pathway. The outcomes of such studies demonstrate significant time-dependent changes in the balance of excitatory and inhibitory inputs to both direct and indirect pathway MSNs in HD and emphasize early increases in both excitatory and inhibitory inputs to direct pathway MSNs. There also is a strong influence of alterations in dopamine modulation that possibly cause some of the changes in excitatory and inhibitory synaptic transmission in the HD models. These changes will markedly alter the output structures, the GPi and the SNr. In the future, the use of combined optogenetics with identified neurons in each pathway will help unravel the next set of questions about how the output nuclei are affected in HD.
Keywords: Huntington's disease; Medium-sized spiny neurons; dopamine modulation; excitation; inhibition.