Although the mechanisms underlying the loss of neurons in Parkinson's disease are not well understood, impaired mitochondrial function and pathological protein aggregation are suspected as playing a major role. Why DA (dopamine) neurons and a select small subset of brain nuclei are particularly vulnerable to such ubiquitous cellular dysfunctions is presently one of the key unanswered questions in Parkinson's disease research. One intriguing hypothesis is that their heightened vulnerability is a consequence of their elevated bioenergetic requirements. Here, we show for the first time that vulnerable nigral DA neurons differ from less vulnerable DA neurons such as those of the VTA (ventral tegmental area) by having a higher basal rate of mitochondrial OXPHOS (oxidative phosphorylation), a smaller reserve capacity, a higher density of axonal mitochondria, an elevated level of basal oxidative stress, and a considerably more complex axonal arborization. Furthermore, we demonstrate that reducing axonal arborization by acting on axon guidance pathways with Semaphorin 7A reduces in parallel the basal rate of mitochondrial OXPHOS and the vulnerability of nigral DA neurons to the neurotoxic agents MPP(+) (1-methyl-4-phenylpyridinium) and rotenone. Blocking L-type calcium channels with isradipine was protective against MPP(+) but not rotenone. Our data provide the most direct demonstration to date in favor of the hypothesis that the heightened vulnerability of nigral DA neurons in Parkinson's disease is directly due to their particular bioenergetic and morphological characteristics.
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