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Relative contributions of severe dopaminergic neuron ablation and dopamine depletion to cognitive impairment

Morgan, RG;Gibbs, JT;Melief, EJ;Postupna, NO;Sherfield, EE;Wilson, A;Keene, CD;Montine, TJ;Palmiter, RD;Darvas, M;

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is characterized by the loss of dopaminergic neurons and produces a movement disorder and cognitive impairment that becomes more extensive with the duration of the disease. To what extent cognitive impairment in advanced PD can be attributed to severe loss of dopamine (DA) signaling is not well understood. Furthermore, it is unclear if the loss of DA neurons contributes to the cognitive impairment caused by the reduction in DA signaling. We generated genetic mouse models with equally severe chronic loss of DA achieved by either extensive ablation of DA neurons or inactivation of DA synthesis from preserved neurons and compared their motor and cognitive performance. Motor behaviors were equally blunted in both models, but we observed that DA neuron ablation caused more severe cognitive deficits than DA depletion. Both models had marked deficits in cue-discrimination learning. Yet, deficits in cue-discrimination learning were more severe in mice with DA neuron ablation and only mice with DA neuron ablation had drastically impaired performance in spatial learning, spatial memory and object memory tests. These results indicate that while a severe reduction in DA signaling results in motor and cognitive impairments, the loss of DA neurons promotes more extensive cognitive deficits and suggest that a loss of additional factors that depend on DA neurons may participate in the progressive cognitive decline found in patients with PD.