Substantia nigra and Parkinson's disease: a brief history of their long and intimate relationship.

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Can J Neurol Sci, Volume 37, Issue 3, p.313-9 (2010)


History, 18th Century, History, 19th Century, History, 20th Century, Humans, Neurology, Neurons, Parkinson Disease, Substantia Nigra


<p>The substantia nigra was discovered in 1786 by Félix Vicq d'Azyr, but it took more than a century before Paul Blocq and Georges Marinesco alluded to a possible link between this structure and Parkinson's disease. The insight came from the study of a tuberculosis patient admitted in Charcot's neurology ward at la Salpêtrière because he was suffering from unilateral parkinsonian tremor. At autopsy, Blocq and Marinesco discovered an encapsulated tumor confined to the substantia nigra, contralateral to the affected side, and concluded that tremor in that particular case resulted from a midbrain lesion. This pioneering work, published in 1893, led Edouard Brissaud to formulate, in 1895, the hypothesis that the substantia nigra is the major pathological site in Parkinson's disease. Brissaud's hypothesis was validated in 1919 by Constantin Trétiakoff in a remarkable thesis summarizing a post-mortem study of the substantia nigra conducted in Marinesco's laboratory. Despite highly convincing evidence of nigral cell losses in idiopathic and post-encephalitic Parkinsonism, Trétiakoff's work raised considerable doubts among his colleagues, who believed that the striatum and pallidum were the preferential targets of parkinsonian degeneration. Trétiakoff's results were nevertheless confirmed by detailed neuropathological studies undertaken in the 1930s and by the discovery, in the 1960s, of the dopaminergic nature of the nigrostriatal neurons that degenerate in Parkinson's disease. These findings have strengthened the link between the substantia nigra and Parkinson's disease, but modern research has uncovered the multifaceted nature of this neurodegenerative disorder by identifying other brain structures and chemospecifc systems involved in its pathogenesis.</p>

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