Lipid changes in Niemann-Pick disease type C brain: personal experience and review of the literature

Neurochem Res. 1999 Apr;24(4):481-9. doi: 10.1023/a:1022575511354.


Niemann-Pick disease type C (NPC) is a neurovisceral disorder characterized by lysosomal sequestration of endocytosed LDL-cholesterol, premature and abnormal enrichment of cholesterol in trans Golgi cisternae and accompanying anomalies in intracellular sterol trafficking. In addition to cholesterol, the NPC lesion has also been shown to impact the metabolism of sphingolipids. Lipids, more particularly glycolipids, were studied in brain tissue from eight cases with proven NPC, ranging from 21 fetal weeks to 19 years of age (one case with rapidly fatal neonatal cholestatic icterus, three cases with infantile neurological onset, one late infantile and two juvenile neurological cases). In gray matter, the concentrations of total cholesterol, sphingomyelin and total gangliosides were within the normal range in all cases. In white matter, a severe loss of galactosylceramide and other myelin lipids (including cholesterol) was prominent in patients with the neurological severe infantile form (levels similar to those in 6-8 month-old infants) or the late infantile form of the disease, but only a slight decrease was observed in patients with a juvenile neurological onset. Analysis of the ganglioside profiles and study of minor neutral glycolipids revealed striking abnormalities, although not present at the fetal stage. In cerebral cortex, gangliosides GM3 and GM2 showed a significant increase, 10-15 fold and 3-5-fold the normal level, respectively, with already some abnormalities in a 3-month-old patient. Except in the latter patient, a prominent storage of glucosylceramide, lactosylceramide and gangliotriaosylceramide (asialo-GM2) was observed, with 10-50-fold increases from the normal concentration. The fatty acid composition of these glycolipids suggests that they have a neuronal origin. A slight increase of globotriaosyl- and globotetraosylceramide and of more complex neutral glycolipids also occurred. While ganglioside changes were essentially similar in gray and white matter, changes of the neutral glycolipids were only minimal in the latter. Our data are in good accordance with previous studies and provide additional information. They emphasize that, apart a varying demyelinating process (most pronounced in children with a severe infantile neurological form) brain lipids abnormalities are essentially located to the gray matter. They confirm and give more precise information on the glycolipid nature of the neuronal storage, and establish that a similar type of changes occurs in the different neurological forms of the disease. Yet, our study indicates that glycolipid changes in brain do not occur before a few months after birth, possibly at a period concomitant with the onset of neurological symptoms, in contrast to the very early glycolipid abnormalities observed in non-neural organs. Glycolipid changes rather similar to those seen in NPC brain, in particular for gangliosides, have been described for other lysosomal disorders such as Niemann-Pick type A and mucopolysaccharidoses. The glucosyl-and lactosylceramide accumulation, however, is more striking in NPC, especially taking into account that there is no other known storage in NPC brain. Some neuropathological changes, such as ectopic neurites, could be related to the glycolipid changes. Metabolic studies in cultured fibroblasts combined to the observation that no lipids other than glycolipids accumulate in brain suggest that the NPC gene products possibly participate in intracellular transport or regulate metabolism of glycolipids.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Fetus / metabolism
  • Gangliosides / metabolism
  • Glycolipids / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Lipid Metabolism*
  • Niemann-Pick Diseases / metabolism*


  • Gangliosides
  • Glycolipids