The spatiotemporal changes in dopamine, neuromelanin and iron characterizing Parkinson's disease

Brain. 2021 Nov 29;144(10):3114-3125. doi: 10.1093/brain/awab191.


In Parkinson's disease, there is a progressive reduction in striatal dopaminergic function, and loss of neuromelanin-containing dopaminergic neurons and increased iron deposition in the substantia nigra. We tested the hypothesis of a relationship between impairment of the dopaminergic system and changes in the iron metabolism. Based on imaging data of patients with prodromal and early clinical Parkinson's disease, we assessed the spatiotemporal ordering of such changes and relationships in the sensorimotor, associative and limbic territories of the nigrostriatal system. Patients with Parkinson's disease (disease duration < 4 years) or idiopathic REM sleep behaviour disorder (a prodromal form of Parkinson's disease) and healthy controls underwent longitudinal examination (baseline and 2-year follow-up). Neuromelanin and iron sensitive MRI and dopamine transporter single-photon emission tomography were performed to assess nigrostriatal levels of neuromelanin, iron, and dopamine. For all three functional territories of the nigrostriatal system, in the clinically most and least affected hemispheres separately, the following was performed: cross-sectional and longitudinal intergroup difference analysis of striatal dopamine and iron, and nigral neuromelanin and iron; in Parkinson's disease patients, exponential fitting analysis to assess the duration of the prodromal phase and the temporal ordering of changes in dopamine, neuromelanin or iron relative to controls; and voxel-wise correlation analysis to investigate concomitant spatial changes in dopamine-iron, dopamine-neuromelanin and neuromelanin-iron in the substantia nigra pars compacta. The temporal ordering of dopaminergic changes followed the known spatial pattern of progression involving first the sensorimotor, then the associative and limbic striatal and nigral regions. Striatal dopaminergic denervation occurred first followed by abnormal iron metabolism and finally neuromelanin changes in the substantia nigra pars compacta, which followed the same spatial and temporal gradient observed in the striatum but shifted in time. In conclusion, dopaminergic striatal dysfunction and cell loss in the substantia nigra pars compacta are interrelated with increased nigral iron content.

Keywords: Parkinson’s disease; dopamine transporter; imaging; iron; neuromelanin.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Cohort Studies
  • Corpus Striatum / diagnostic imaging
  • Corpus Striatum / metabolism*
  • Dopamine / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Iron / metabolism*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / trends
  • Male
  • Melanins / metabolism*
  • Middle Aged
  • Parkinson Disease / diagnostic imaging
  • Parkinson Disease / metabolism*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Substantia Nigra / diagnostic imaging
  • Substantia Nigra / metabolism*
  • Time Factors


  • Melanins
  • neuromelanin
  • Iron
  • Dopamine