Marked microglial reaction in normal aging human substantia nigra: Correlation with extraneuronal neuromelanin pigment deposits

Thomas G. Beach, Lucia I. Sue, Douglas G. Walker, Lih Fen Lue, Donald J. Connor, John N. Caviness, Marwan N. Sabbagh, Charles H. Adler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

57 Scopus citations


Multiple reports have documented an age-related loss, estimated at about 10% per decade, of the pigmented neurons in the substantia nigra. This is associated with motor dysfunction, including bradykinesia, stooped posture and gait disturbance. As microglia are activated by cell death and neuromelanin pigment, we hypothesized that there should be a significant microglial reaction in normal aging human substantia nigra. Sections of substantia nigra from elderly subjects (N = 15; mean 81.3; SD 7.0) and younger subjects (N = 7; mean 30.3; SD = 8.7), all of which had no specific neurologically or neuropathologically defined disorders, were stained immunohistochemically for MHC Class II and the area occupied by microglia was quantified in substantia nigra pars compacta. All elderly subjects showed a pronounced microglial reaction in the substantia nigra, with frequent, intensely stained hypertrophic microglia, while immunoreactive nigral microglia were much less frequent in the younger subjects. Quantification showed that in older subjects, the percentage of substantia nigra area occupied by microglial bodies and processes was significantly greater than for younger subjects (mean 19.6 vs. 3.6; P = 0.005). Extraneuronal neuromelanin deposits were present in all the older subjects but were absent or rare in the younger subjects. The neuromelanin deposit abundance score in the older subjects correlated significantly with the area occupied by immunoreactive microglia. The marked microglial reaction in normal aging human substantia nigra, together with the previously reported 35-80% pigmented neuron loss, indicates the presence of a powerful pathologic process that may be additive with specific age-related neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson's disease.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)419-424
Number of pages6
JournalActa neuropathologica
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2007


  • Aging
  • Human
  • Microglia
  • Neuromelanin
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Substantia nigra

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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