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Combinatorial Expression of Grp and Neurod6 Defines Dopamine Neuron Populations with Distinct Projection Patterns and Disease Vulnerability.


Midbrain dopamine neurons project to numerous targets throughout the brain to modulate various behaviors and brain states. Within this small population of neurons exists significant heterogeneity based on physiology, circuitry, and disease susceptibility. Recent studies have shown that dopamine neurons can be subdivided based on gene expression; however, the extent to which genetic markers represent functionally relevant dopaminergic subpopulations has not been fully explored. Here we performed single-cell RNA-sequencing of mouse dopamine neurons and validated studies showing that Neurod6 and Grp are selective markers for dopaminergic subpopulations. Using a combination of multiplex fluorescent in situ hybridization, retrograde labeling, and electrophysiology in mice of both sexes, we defined the anatomy, projection targets, physiological properties, and disease vulnerability of dopamine neurons based on Grp and/or Neurod6 expression. We found that the combinatorial expression of Grp and Neurod6 defines dopaminergic subpopulations with unique features. Grp+/Neurod6+ dopamine neurons reside in the ventromedial VTA, send projections to the medial shell of the nucleus accumbens, and have noncanonical physiological properties. Grp+/Neurod6- dopamine neurons are found in the VTA as well as in the ventromedial portion of the SNc, where they project selectively to the dorsomedial striatum. Grp-/Neurod6+ dopamine neurons represent a smaller VTA subpopulation, which is preferentially spared in a 6-OHDA model of Parkinson's disease. Together, our work provides detailed characterization of Neurod6 and Grp expression in the midbrain and generates new insights into how these markers define functionally relevant dopaminergic subpopulations.

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