, Volume 113, Issue 6, pp 721-728
Date: 11 Apr 2006

Evidence for specific phases in the development of human neuromelanin

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Neuromelanin is a dark-coloured pigment which forms in the dopamine neurons of the human midbrain. Here we describe the age-related development and regulation of neuromelanin within these dopamine neurons. 10 µm sections from formalin-fixed midbrain from 29 people spanning the ages of 24 weeks to 95 years old were either stained with a basic Nissl substance stain (0.5% cresyl violet), or processed unstained. After locating the substantia nigra using the stained sections, digital photos were taken of individual ventral substantia nigra neurons in the unstained sections, and the cellular area occupied by pigment, and optical density were measured using computer software. These measurements demonstrated three developmental phases. Neuromelanin was not present at birth and initiation of pigmentation began at approximately 3 years of age, followed by a period of increasing pigment granule number and increasing pigment granule colouration until age 20. In middle and later life the colour of the pigment granules continued to darken but was not associated with any substantial growth in pigment volume. The identification of three phases and changes in the rate of neuromelanin production over time suggests the regulation of neuromelanin production and turnover, possibly through enzymatic processes.