Human midbrain dopamine (DA) neurons are a heterogeneous group of cells that share a common neurotransmitter phenotype and are in close anatomical proximity but display different functions, sensitivity to degeneration, and axonal innervation targets. The A9 DA neuron subtype controls motor function and is primarily degenerated in Parkinson's disease (PD), whereas A10 neurons are largely unaffected by the condition, and their dysfunction is associated with neuropsychiatric disorders. Currently, DA neurons can only be reliably classified on the basis of topographical features, including anatomical location in the midbrain and projection targets in the forebrain. No systematic molecular classification at the genome-wide level has been proposed to date. Although many years of scientific efforts in embryonic and adult mouse brain have positioned us to better understand the complexity of DA neuron biology, many biological phenomena specific to humans are not amenable to being reproduced in animal models. The establishment of human cell-based systems combined with advanced computational single-cell transcriptomics holds great promise for decoding the mechanisms underlying maturation and diversification of human DA neurons, and linking their molecular heterogeneity to functions in the midbrain. Human pluripotent stem cells have emerged as a useful tool to recapitulate key molecular features of mature DA neuron subtypes. Here, we review some of the most recent advances and discuss the current challenges in using stem cells, to model human DA biology. We also describe how single cell RNA sequencing may provide key insights into the molecular programs driving DA progenitor specification into mature DA neuron subtypes. Exploiting the state-of-the-art approaches will lead to a better understanding of stem cell-derived DA neurons and their use in disease modeling and regenerative medicine.
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