The basal ganglia circuitry processes the signals that flow from the cortex, allowing the correct execution of voluntary movements. In Parkinson's disease, the degeneration of dopaminergic neurons of the substantia nigra pars compacta triggers a cascade of functional changes affecting the whole basal ganglia network. The most relevant alterations affect the output nuclei of the circuit, the medial globus pallidus and substantia nigra pars reticulata, which become hyperactive. Such hyperactivity is sustained by the enhanced glutamatergic inputs that the output nuclei receive from the subthalamic nucleus. The mechanisms leading to the subthalamic disinhibition are still poorly understood. According to the current model of basal ganglia organization, the phenomenon is due to a decrease in the inhibitory control exerted over the subthalamic nucleus by the lateral globus pallidus. Recent data, however, suggest that additional if not alternative mechanisms may underlie subthalamic hyperactivity. In particular, given the reciprocal innervation of the substantia nigra pars compacta and the subthalamic nucleus, the dopaminergic deficit might influence the subthalamic activity, directly. In addition, the increased excitatory drive to the dopaminergic nigral neurons originating from the hyperactive subthalamic nucleus might sustain the progression of the degenerative process. The identification of the role of the subthalamic nucleus and, more in general, of the glutamatergic mechanisms in the pathophysiology of Parkinson's disease might lead to a new approach in the pharmacological treatment of the disease. Current therapeutic strategies rely on the use of L-DOPA and/or dopamine agonists to correct the dopaminergic deficit. Drugs capable of antagonizing the effects of glutamate might represent, in the next future, a valuable tool for the development of new symptomatic and neuroprotective strategies for therapy of Parkinson's disease. Copyright (C) 2000 Elsevier Science Ltd.
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