Abnormal lipid metabolism and neurodegenerative diseases

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ALS has been linked by many scientists to an abnormal lipid metabolism and, in particular, to gangliosides and their ceramide-type precursors which are thought to be modulators of the progression of the disease. Interestingly, autoantibodies against specific gangliosides produce an inflammatory disease of the spinal motor neurons which is known as conduction multifocal motor neuropathy (Harschnitz et al., 2014).

Overall, there is substantial evidence of ganglioside dysfunction in neurodegenerative diseases, for example for ALS, Alzheimer's disease, Huntington's disease and Parkinson's disease.

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The exact nature of the problems, however, appears to be variable in these different diseases; for example ganglioside concentrations are reduced in Parkinson's disease and Huntington's disease, but increased in Alzheimer's disease and there are two-way changes for ALS.

Glycan and polysaccharide are synonymous, however, in practice, the term glycan can also be used to refer to a glycoprotein, a glycolipid or a proteoglycan. Glycolipids are lipids with a carbohydrate linked by a glycosidic bond (covalent). Their role is to maintain the stability of the cell membrane and facilitate cell recognition, which is crucial for the immune response and in the connections that allow cells to connect to each other to form tissue.

Sphingolipidoses are a class of lipid storage disorders linked to the metabolism of sphingolipids (a glycolipid). Sphingolipids were discovered in brain extracts in the 1870s and were named after the mythological sphinx because of their enigmatic nature. These compounds play an important role in signal transduction and cell recognition. Sphingolipidosis, or disorders of sphingolipid metabolism, have a particular impact on neural tissue. The main diseases of these disorders are Niemann-Pick disease, Fabry disease, Krabbe disease, Gaucher disease, Tay-Sachs disease and metachromatic leukodystrophy.

There are simple sphingolipids, which include sphingoid bases and ceramides as well as complex sphingolipids.

Sceramides have been implicated in various medical conditions, including cancer, neurodegeneration, diabetes, microbial pathogenesis, obesity and inflammation. Ceramides induce insulin resistance in skeletal muscles, as well as induction of insulin resistance in many tissues. In the mitochondria, ceramide suppresses the electron transport chain and induces the production of reactive oxygen species.

Complex sphingolipids include Sphingomyelin which is found in the membranes of animal cells, particularly in the membranous myelin sheath which surrounds certain axons of nerve cells. They also include glycosphingolipids which can themselves be divided into cerebrosides, gangliosides and globosides.

Gangliosides have been shown to be very important molecules in immunology. Natural and semi-synthetic gangliosides are considered as possible therapies for neurodegenerative disorders. Gangliosides are present and concentrated on cell surfaces, where they present points of recognition for extracellular molecules or the surfaces of neighboring cells. They are mainly found in the nervous system.

A number of studies have implicated glycosyltransferases in the pathogenesis of neurodegenerative diseases, but it has been difficult to differentiate the cause of the effect. Scientists recently discovered [0] that mutations near the substrate binding site of the glycosyltransferase 8 domain containing 1 (GLT8D1) are associated with familial amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The study authors demonstrated that mutations associated with ALS reduce the activity of the enzyme, suggesting a mechanism of loss of function that is an attractive therapeutic target. Their work shows that an isolated dysfunction of a glycosyltransferase is enough to cause degenerative diseases.

Several glycan-based therapies have been developed. In particular, glycosylation modulators that affect glycan uptake can be powerful tools for developing glycan-based therapies.

[0] Disrupted glycosylation of lipids and proteins isa cause of neurodegeneration. Tobias Moll, Pamela J. Shaw and Johnathan Cooper-Knock doi:10.1093/brain/awz358

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