Inhibition of fatty acid amide hydrolase prevents pathology in neurovisceral acid sphingomyelinase deficiency by rescuing defective endocannabinoid signaling

EMBO Mol Med. 2020 Nov 6;12(11):e11776. doi: 10.15252/emmm.201911776. Epub 2020 Oct 5.


Acid sphingomyelinase deficiency (ASMD) leads to cellular accumulation of sphingomyelin (SM), neurodegeneration, and early death. Here, we describe the downregulation of the endocannabinoid (eCB) system in neurons of ASM knockout (ASM-KO) mice and a ASMD patient. High SM reduced expression of the eCB receptor CB1 in neuronal processes and induced its accumulation in lysosomes. Activation of CB1 receptor signaling, through inhibition of the eCB-degrading enzyme fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), reduced SM levels in ASM-KO neurons. Oral treatment of ASM-KO mice with a FAAH inhibitor prevented SM buildup; alleviated inflammation, neurodegeneration, and behavioral alterations; and extended lifespan. This treatment showed benefits even after a single administration at advanced disease stages. We also found CB1 receptor downregulation in neurons of a mouse model and a patient of another sphingolipid storage disorder, Niemann-Pick disease type C (NPC). We showed the efficacy of FAAH inhibition to reduce SM and cholesterol levels in NPC patient-derived cells and in the brain of a NPC mouse model. Our findings reveal a pathophysiological crosstalk between neuronal SM and the eCB system and offer a new treatment for ASMD and other sphingolipidoses.

Keywords: Niemann-Pick; endocannabinoids; neurodegeneration; sphingomyelin.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Amidohydrolases / genetics
  • Animals
  • Endocannabinoids
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Mice, Knockout
  • Niemann-Pick Disease, Type A*
  • Sphingomyelin Phosphodiesterase / genetics


  • Endocannabinoids
  • Sphingomyelin Phosphodiesterase
  • Amidohydrolases
  • fatty-acid amide hydrolase