The neuropathological substrate of dementia in patients with Parkinson's disease is still under debate, particularly in patients with insufficient alternate neuropathology for other degenerative dementias. In patients with pure Lewy body Parkinson's disease, previous post-mortem studies have shown that dopaminergic and cholinergic regulatory projection systems degenerate, but the exact pathways that may explain the development of dementia in patients with Parkinson's disease remain unclear. Studies in rodents suggest that both the mesocorticolimbic dopaminergic and septohippocampal cholinergic pathways may functionally interact to regulate certain aspects of cognition, however, whether such an interaction occurs in humans is still poorly understood. In this study, we performed stereological analyses of the A9 and A10 dopaminergic neurons and Ch1, Ch2 and Ch4 cholinergic neurons located in the basal forebrain, along with an assessment of α-synuclein pathology in these regions and in the hippocampus of six demented and five non-demented patients with Parkinson's disease and five age-matched control individuals with no signs of neurological disease. Moreover, we measured choline acetyltransferase activity in the hippocampus and frontal cortex of eight demented and eight non-demented patients with Parkinson's disease, as well as in the same areas of eight age-matched controls. All patients with Parkinson's disease exhibited a similar 80-85% loss of pigmented A9 dopaminergic neurons, whereas patients with Parkinson's disease dementia presented an additional loss in the lateral part of A10 dopaminergic neurons as well as Ch4 nucleus basalis neurons. In contrast, medial A10 dopaminergic neurons and Ch1 and Ch2 cholinergic septal neurons were largely spared. Despite variable Ch4 cell loss, cortical but not hippocampal cholinergic activity was consistently reduced in all patients with Parkinson's disease, suggesting significant dysfunction in cortical cholinergic pathways before frank neuronal degeneration. Patients with Parkinson's disease dementia were differentiated by a significant reduction in hippocampal cholinergic activity, by a significant loss of non-pigmented lateral A10 dopaminergic neurons and Ch4 cholinergic neurons (30 and 55% cell loss, respectively, compared with neuronal preservation in control subjects), and by an increase in the severity of α-synuclein pathology in the basal forebrain and hippocampus. Overall, these results point to increasing α-synuclein deposition and hippocampal dysfunction in a setting of more widespread degeneration of cortical dopaminergic and cholinergic pathways as contributing to the dementia occurring in patients with pure Parkinson's disease. Furthermore, our findings support the concept that α-synuclein deposition is associated with significant neuronal dysfunction in the absence of frank neuronal loss in Parkinson's disease.
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