Dopamine transporter (DAT) single-photon emission tomography (SPECT) with (123)Ioflupane is a widely used diagnostic tool for patients with suspected parkinsonian syndromes, as it assists with differentiating between Parkinson’s disease (PD) or atypical parkinsonisms and conditions without a presynaptic dopaminergic deficit such as essential tremor, vascular and drug-induced parkinsonisms. Recent evidence supports its utility as in vivo proof of degenerative parkinsonisms, and DAT imaging has been proposed as a potential surrogate marker for dopaminergic nigrostriatal neurons. However, the interpretation of DAT-SPECT imaging may be challenged by several factors including the loss of DAT receptor density with age and the effect of certain drugs on dopamine uptake. Furthermore, a clear, direct relationship between nigral loss and DAT decrease has been controversial so far. Striatal DAT uptake could reflect nigral neuronal loss once the loss exceeds 50%. Indeed, reduction of DAT binding seems to be already present in the prodromal stage of PD, suggesting both an early synaptic dysfunction and the activation of compensatory changes to delay the onset of symptoms. Despite a weak correlation with PD severity and progression, quantitative measurements of DAT binding at baseline could be used to predict the emergence of late-disease motor fluctuations and dyskinesias. This review addresses the possibilities and limitations of DAT-SPECT in PD and, focusing specifically on regulatory changes of DAT in surviving DA neurons, we investigate its role in diagnosis and its prognostic value for motor complications as disease progresses.
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