Numerous disorders of the central nervous system (CNS) are attributed to the selective death of distinct neuronal cell populations. Interestingly, in many of these conditions, a specific subset of neurons is extremely prone to degeneration while other, very similar neurons are less affected or even spared for many years. In Parkinson's disease (PD), the motor manifestations are primarily linked to the selective, progressive loss of dopaminergic (DA) neurons in the substantia nigra pars compacta (SNpc). In contrast, the very similar DA neurons in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) demonstrate a much lower degree of degeneration. Elucidating the molecular mechanisms underlying the phenomenon of differential DA vulnerability in PD has proven extremely challenging. Moreover, an increasing number of studies demonstrate that considerable molecular and electrophysiologic heterogeneity exists among the DA neurons within the SNpc as well as those within the VTA, adding yet another layer of complexity to the selective DA vulnerability observed in PD. The discovery of key pathways that regulate this differential susceptibility of DA neurons to degeneration holds great potential for the discovery of novel drug targets and the development of promising neuroprotective treatment strategies. This review provides an update on the molecular basis of the differential vulnerability of midbrain DA neurons in PD and highlights the most recent developments in this field.
Keywords: Parkinson’s disease; differential vulnerability; dopamine; selective vulnerability; substantia nigra; ventral tegmental area.