Neuroimaging in Parkinson's disease: focus on substantia nigra and nigro-striatal projection

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Purpose of review

The diagnosis of Parkinson disease is based on clinical features; however, unmet need is an imaging signature for Parkinson disease and the early differential diagnosis with atypical parkinsonisms. A summary of the molecular imaging and MRI recent evidences for Parkinson disease diagnosis will be presented in this review.

Recent findings

The nigro-striatal dysfunction explored by dopamine transporter imaging is not a mandatory diagnostic criterion for Parkinson disease, recent evidence supported its utility as in-vivo proof of degenerative parkinsonisms, and there might be compensatory mechanisms leading to an early overestimation. The visualization of abnormalities in substantia nigra by MRI has been recently described as sensitive and specific tool for Parkinson disease diagnosis, even in preclinical conditions, whereas it is not useful for distinguishing between Parkinson disease and atypical parkinsonisms. The relationship between the nigral anatomical changes, evaluated as structural alterations or neuromelanin signal decrease and the dopaminergic nigro-striatal function needs to be further clarified.


With the hopeful advent of potential neuroprotective drugs for PD, it is crucial to have imaging measures that are able to detect at risk subjects. Moreover it is desirable to increase the knowledge about which measure better predicts the probability and the time of clinical conversion to PD.

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