Ion channel dysregulation and cellular adaptations to alpha-synuclein in stressful pacemakers of the parkinsonian brainstem

Wei Hua Chiu, Nadine Wattad, Joshua A. Goldberg*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Parkinson's disease (PD) is diagnosed by its cardinal motor symptoms that are associated with the loss of dopamine neurons in the substantia nigra pars compacta (SNc). However, PD patients suffer from various non-motor symptoms years before diagnosis. These prodromal symptoms are thought to be associated with the appearance of Lewy body pathologies (LBP) in brainstem regions such as the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus (DMV), the locus coeruleus (LC) and others. The neurons in these regions that are vulnerable to LBP are all slow autonomous pacemaker neurons that exhibit elevated oxidative stress due to their perpetual influx of Ca2+ ions. Aggregation of toxic α-Synuclein (aSyn) – the main constituent of LBP – during the long prodromal period challenges these vulnerable neurons, presumably altering their biophysics and physiology. In contrast to pathophysiology of late stage parkinsonism which is well-documented, little is known about the pathophysiology of the brainstem during prodromal PD. In this review, we discuss ion channel dysregulation associated with aSyn aggregation in brainstem pacemaker neurons and their cellular responses to them. While toxic aSyn elevates oxidative stress in SNc and LC pacemaker neurons and exacerbates their phenotype, DMV neurons mount an adaptive response that mitigates the oxidative stress. Ion channel dysregulation and cellular adaptations may be the drivers of the prodromal symptoms of PD. For example, selective targeting of toxic aSyn to DMV pacemakers, elevates the surface density of K+ channels, which slows their firing rate, resulting in reduced parasympathetic tone to the gastrointestinal tract, which resembles the prodromal PD symptoms of dysphagia and constipation. The divergent responses of SNc & LC vs. DMV pacemaker neurons may explain why the latter outlive the former despite presenting LBPs earlier. Elucidation the brainstem pathophysiology of prodromal PD could pave the way for physiological biomarkers, earlier diagnosis and novel neuroprotective therapies for PD.

Original languageEnglish
Article number108683
JournalPharmacology and Therapeutics
StatePublished - Aug 2024

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2024 Elsevier Inc.


  • Brainstem
  • Calcium channels
  • Neurodegeneration
  • Neuronal vulnerability
  • Oxidative stress
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Pathophysiology
  • Potassium channels
  • Prodromal symptoms
  • Synuclein


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