Dopaminergic neurons — nerve cells gradually lost to Parkinson’s progression — that contain an enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase 1A1 are essential for acquiring the motor skills needed for proper movement in given situations, a mouse study reports.
The research, “Distinct connectivity and functionality of aldehyde dehydrogenase 1A1-positive nigrostriatal dopaminergic neurons in motor learning,” was published in Cell Reports. The work was developed by the Intramural Research Program of the National Institute on Aging (IRP-NIA).
Parkinson’s disease severely affects dopaminergic neurons, those that produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter (cell-signaling molecule) that relays information between nerve cells and between the brain and the rest of the body. These neurons are found in two specific brain regions involved in motor control: the striatum and the substantia nigra.
Nerve cells may or not contain aldehyde dehydrogenase 1A1 (ALDH1A1), an enzyme that is involved in cellular detoxification. Parkinson’s seems to mostly damage ALDH1A1-positive dopaminergic neurons, suggesting the enzyme may be a key player in this neurodegenerative disorder.
Both ALDH1A1-positive and ALDH1A1-negative dopaminergic nerve cells contribute to voluntary motor behavior. But the degree to which ALDH1A1-positive neurons are crucial to acquiring motor skills remains to be understood.
Using a mouse model of Parkinson’s, scientists targeted dopaminergic neurons positive for ALDH1A1, and produced a detailed connectivity map of these specific neuronal networks in the mouse brain.
ALDH1A1-positive neurons were found to be in constant communication with other brain structures there. Importantly, researchers found that those dopamine-producing neurons of the striatum and substantia nigra that received the greatest percentage of molecular information (input) were located in the caudate-putamen nuclei, a brain region involved in movement control.
Researchers then selectively removed ALDH1A1-positive neurons to mimic the degeneration pattern observed in late-stage Parkinson’s disease. The animals’ ability to show new motor skills — new ways of voluntary movement, like foot position for maintaining balance while walking on a moving surface — was assessed using the rotarod test. In this test, mice must learn to balance while walking on a constantly rotating rod much like a treadmill.
Mice without ALDH1A1-positive neurons displayed a distinctly poorer ability to learn new motor skills, and slower walking speeds compared to control animals.
“Compared with a modest reduction in high-speed walking, the ALDH1A1+ nDAN-ablated mice showed a more severe impairment in rotarod motor skill leaning,” the researchers wrote. “Unlike control animals … [these] mice essentially failed to improve their performance during the course of rotarod tests.” (nDANs are nigrostriatal dopaminergic neurons.)
These animals were then treated with dopamine replacement therapy, either levodopa or a dopamine receptor agonist, one hour before a new motor skills assessment. Dopamine replacement therapy is standard treatment for the motor symptoms associated with Parkinson’s.
Levodopa (L-DOPA) treatment allowed the animals without ALDH1A1-positive neurons to travel longer distances, and to walk more frequently at higher speeds during a session. But it failed to improve their ability to acquire new motor skills during repeated tests. Treatment with a dopamine receptor agonist was also ineffective.
“When the ALDH1A1+ nDANs were ablated after the mice had reached maximal performance, the ablation no longer affected the test results, supporting an essential function of ALDH1A1+ nDANs in the acquisition of skilled movements. These findings are in line with the theory that nigrostriatal dopamine serves as the key feedback cue for reinforcement learning,” the researchers wrote.
These results provide “a comprehensive whole-brain connectivity map,” they concluded, and reveal a key role of ALDH1A1-positive neurons in newly learned motor skills, suggesting that motor learning processes require these neurons to receive a multitude of information from other nerve cells and to supply dopamine with “dynamic precision.”