Subpopulations of dopaminergic (DA) neurons within the substantia nigra pars compacta (SNpc) display a differential vulnerability to loss in Parkinson's disease (PD); however, it is not clear why these subsets are preferentially selected in PD-associated neurodegeneration. In rodent SNpc, DA neurons can be divided into two subpopulations based on the expression of aldehyde dehydrogenase 1 (ALDH1A1). Here, we have shown that, in α-synuclein transgenic mice, a murine model of PD-related disease, DA neurodegeneration occurs mainly in a dorsomedial ALDH1A1-negative subpopulation that is also prone to cytotoxic aggregation of α-synuclein. Notably, the topographic ALDH1A1 pattern observed in α-synuclein transgenic mice was conserved in human SNpc. Postmortem evaluation of brains of patients with PD revealed a severe reduction of ALDH1A1 expression and neurodegeneration in the ventral ALDH1A1-positive DA subpopulations. ALDH1A1 expression was also suppressed in α-synuclein transgenic mice. Deletion of Aldh1a1 exacerbated α-synuclein-mediated DA neurodegeneration and α-synuclein aggregation, whereas Aldh1a1-null and control DA neurons were comparably susceptible to 1-methyl-4-phenylpyridinium-, glutamate-, or camptothecin-induced cell death. ALDH1A1 overexpression appeared to preferentially protect against α-synuclein-mediated DA neurodegeneration but did not rescue α-synuclein-induced loss of cortical neurons. Together, our findings suggest that ALDH1A1 protects subpopulations of SNpc DA neurons by preventing the accumulation of dopamine aldehyde intermediates and formation of cytotoxic α-synuclein oligomers.
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