Stroke is a major cause of long-term disability, the severity of which is directly related to the numbers of neurons that succumb to the ischemic insult. The signaling cascades activated by cerebral ischemia that may either promote or protect against neuronal death are not well understood. One injury-responsive signaling pathway that has recently been characterized in studies of non-neural cells involves cleavage of membrane sphingomyelin by acidic and/or neutral sphingomyelinase (ASMase) resulting in generation of the second messenger ceramide. We now report that transient focal cerebral ischemia induces large increases in ASMase activity, ceramide levels, and production of inflammatory cytokines in wild-type mice, but not in mice lacking ASMase. The extent of brain tissue damage is decreased and behavioral outcome improved in mice lacking ASMase. Neurons lacking ASMase exhibit decreased vulnerability to excitotoxicity and hypoxia, which is associated with decreased levels of intracellular calcium and oxyradicals. Treatment of mice with a drug that inhibits ASMase activity and ceramide production reduces ischemic neuronal injury and improves behavioral outcome, suggesting that drugs that inhibit this signaling pathway may prove beneficial in stroke patients.
- Tumor necrosis factor
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