Cells in the mammalian body must accurately maintain their content of cholesterol, which is an essential membrane component and precursor for vital signalling molecules. Outside the brain, cholesterol homeostasis is guaranteed by a lipoprotein shuttle between the liver, intestine and other organs via the blood circulation. Cells inside the brain are cut off from this circuit by the blood-brain barrier and must regulate their cholesterol content in a different manner. Here, we review how this is accomplished by neurons and astrocytes, two cell types of the central nervous system, whose cooperation is essential for normal brain development and function. The key observation is a remarkable cell-specific distribution of proteins that mediate different steps of cholesterol metabolism. This form of metabolic compartmentalization identifies astrocytes as net producers of cholesterol and neurons as consumers with unique means to prevent cholesterol overload. The idea that cholesterol turnover in neurons depends on close cooperation with astrocytes raises new questions that need to be addressed by new experimental approaches to monitor and manipulate cholesterol homeostasis in a cell-specific manner. We conclude that an understanding of cholesterol metabolism in the brain and its role in disease requires a close look at individual cell types.
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