Acta Neuropathologica

, Volume 120, Issue 2, pp 131-143

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

The synaptic pathology of α-synuclein aggregation in dementia with Lewy bodies, Parkinson’s disease and Parkinson’s disease dementia

  • Walter J. Schulz-SchaefferAffiliated withPrion and Dementia Research Unit, Department of Neuropathology, University Medical Center Göttingen Email author 


Parkinson’s disease (PD) and dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) are usually associated with loss of dopaminergic neurons. Loss of substantia nigra neurons and presence of Lewy body inclusions in some of the remaining neurons are the hallmark pathology seen in the final stages of the disease. Attempts to correlate Lewy body pathology to either cell death or severity of clinical symptoms, however, have not been successful. While the pathophysiology of the neurodegenerative process can hardly be explained by Lewy bodies, the clinical symptoms do indicate a degenerative process located at the presynapse resulting in a neurotransmitter deficiency. Recently it was shown that 90% or even more of α-synuclein aggregates in DLB cases were located at the presynapses in the form of very small deposits. In parallel, dendritic spines are retracted, whereas the presynapses are relatively preserved, suggesting a neurotransmitter deprivation. The same α-synuclein pathology can be demonstrated for PD. These findings give rise to the notion that not cell death but rather α-synuclein aggregate-related synaptic dysfunction causes the neurodegeneration. This opens new perspectives for understanding PD and DLB. If presynaptic α-synuclein aggregation, not neuronal loss, is the key issue of the neurodegenerative process, then PD and DLB may eventually be treatable in the future. The disease may progress via trans-synaptical spread, suggesting that stem cell transplants are of limited use. Future therapies may focus on the regeneration of synapses.


α-Synuclein Protein aggregates Synapse Neurodegeneration Dendritic spines