Neuromelanin-sensitive MRI (NM-MRI) purports to detect the content of neuromelanin (NM), a product of dopamine metabolism that accumulates with age in dopamine neurons of the substantia nigra (SN). Interindividual variability in dopamine function may result in varying levels of NM accumulation in the SN; however, the ability of NM-MRI to measure dopamine function in nonneurodegenerative conditions has not been established. Here, we validated that NM-MRI signal intensity in postmortem midbrain specimens correlated with regional NM concentration even in the absence of neurodegeneration, a prerequisite for its use as a proxy for dopamine function. We then validated a voxelwise NM-MRI approach with sufficient anatomical sensitivity to resolve SN subregions. Using this approach and a multimodal dataset of molecular PET and fMRI data, we further showed the NM-MRI signal was related to both dopamine release in the dorsal striatum and resting blood flow within the SN. These results suggest that NM-MRI signal in the SN is a proxy for function of dopamine neurons in the nigrostriatal pathway. As a proof of concept for its clinical utility, we show that the NM-MRI signal correlated to severity of psychosis in schizophrenia and individuals at risk for schizophrenia, consistent with the well-established dysfunction of the nigrostriatal pathway in psychosis. Our results indicate that noninvasive NM-MRI is a promising tool that could have diverse research and clinical applications to investigate in vivo the role of dopamine in neuropsychiatric illness.
Keywords: Parkinson’s disease; dopamine; magnetic resonance imaging; neuromelanin; schizophrenia.