Mitochondrial Dysfunction Combined with High Calcium Load Leads to Impaired Antioxidant Defense Underlying the Selective Loss of Nigral Dopaminergic Neurons

J Neurosci. 2020 Feb 26;40(9):1975-1986. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1345-19.2019. Epub 2020 Jan 31.


Mitochondrial dysfunction is critically involved in Parkinson's disease, characterized by loss of dopaminergic neurons (DaNs) in the substantia nigra (SNc), whereas DaNs in the neighboring ventral tegmental area (VTA) are much less affected. In contrast to VTA, SNc DaNs engage calcium channels to generate action potentials, which lead to oxidant stress by yet unknown pathways. To determine the molecular mechanisms linking calcium load with selective cell death in the presence of mitochondrial deficiency, we analyzed the mitochondrial redox state and the mitochondrial membrane potential in mice of both sexes with genetically induced, severe mitochondrial dysfunction in DaNs (MitoPark mice), at the same time expressing a redox-sensitive GFP targeted to the mitochondrial matrix. Despite mitochondrial insufficiency in all DaNs, exclusively SNc neurons showed an oxidized redox-system, i.e., a low reduced/oxidized glutathione (GSH-GSSG) ratio. This was mimicked by cyanide, but not by rotenone or antimycin A, making the involvement of reactive oxygen species rather unlikely. Surprisingly, a high mitochondrial inner membrane potential was maintained in MitoPark SNc DaNs. Antagonizing calcium influx into the cell and into mitochondria, respectively, rescued the disturbed redox ratio and induced further hyperpolarization of the inner mitochondrial membrane. Our data therefore show that the constant calcium load in SNc DaNs is counterbalanced by a high mitochondrial inner membrane potential, even under conditions of severe mitochondrial dysfunction, but triggers a detrimental imbalance in the mitochondrial redox system, which will lead to neuron death. Our findings thus reveal a new mechanism, redox imbalance, which underlies the differential vulnerability of DaNs to mitochondrial defects.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Parkinson's disease is characterized by the preferential degeneration of dopaminergic neurons (DaNs) of the substantia nigra pars compacta (SNc), resulting in the characteristic hypokinesia in patients. Ubiquitous pathological triggers cannot be responsible for the selective neuron loss. Here we show that mitochondrial impairment together with elevated calcium burden destabilize the mitochondrial antioxidant defense only in SNc DaNs, and thus promote the increased vulnerability of this neuron population.

Keywords: Parkinson's disease; aging; calcium handling; mitochondria; redox stress; selective vulnerability.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antioxidants / metabolism*
  • Calbindin 1 / metabolism
  • Calcium / toxicity*
  • Cell Death
  • Cyanides / toxicity
  • Dopaminergic Neurons / metabolism*
  • Dopaminergic Neurons / pathology*
  • Female
  • Male
  • Membrane Potential, Mitochondrial
  • Mice
  • Mitochondrial Diseases / metabolism*
  • Mitochondrial Diseases / pathology*
  • Mitochondrial Membranes / metabolism
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Oxidative Stress
  • Substantia Nigra / metabolism*
  • Substantia Nigra / pathology*
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / metabolism
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / pathology


  • Antioxidants
  • Calbindin 1
  • Cyanides
  • Calcium