The International Journal of Developmental Biology

Int. J. Dev. Biol. 44: 679 - 687 (2000)

Vol 44, Issue 6

Special Issue: Developmental Biology in Italy

Genetic and epigenetic control of midbrain dopaminergic neuron development

Published: 1 September 2000

C Perrone-Capano and U Di Porzio

Istituto Internazionale di Genetica e Biofisica, CNR, Naples, Italy.


The relatively few dopaminergic (DA) neurons in the mammalian brain regulate many important neural functions, including motor integration, neuroendocrine hormone release, cognition, emotive behaviors and reward. A number of laboratories, including ours, have contributed to unravel the mechanisms of DA phenotype induction and maturation and elucidated the role of epigenetic factors involved in specification, development and maintenance of midbrain dopaminergic functions. DA progenitors are first "committed" to give rise to DA neurons by the action of two secreted factors, Sonic hedgehog and fibroblast growth factor 8 (FGF8). Subsequently, the function of selectively activated transcription factors, Nurr1 and Ptx3, is required for the DA final determination. Further development of DA neurotransmission requires specific interactions with the developing target striatal cells, which modulate key DA functions, namely synthesis and uptake of the neurotransmitter. Committed and determined DA neurons express the key genes involved in DA neurotransmission at different times in development. In rodents, synthesis and intracellular accumulation of DA is achieved shortly after expression of Nurr1, while the onset of high affinity uptake, responsible for ending the neurotransmission, takes place after a few days. Cell contacts between the presynaptic DA neurons and target striatal neurons are apparently necessary for the fine modulation of DA function, in vivo and in vitro. Strikingly, the in situ maturation and phenotypic specialization of DA neurons grafted into the adult striatum/caudate-putamen parallels the normal development of committed fetal dopamine neurons during neurogenesis. The correct matching between the right presynaptic and postsynaptic neurons is required also for grafted DA cells.

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