Sphingomyelin(SPH) is a type of sphingolipid found in animal cell membranes, especially in the membranous myelin sheath which surrounds some nerve cell axons. It usually consists of phosphorylcholine and ceramide. In humans SPH represents ~85% of all sphingolipids.
Like all sphingolipids, SPH has a ceramide core (sphingosine bonded to a fatty acid via an amide linkage). In addition it contains one polar head group, which is either phosphocholine or phosphoethanolamine.
Function and location
The function of sphingomyelin remained unclear until recently when it was found to have a function in signal transduction.
Sphingomyelin is only found in the exoplasmic face of the cell membrane.
Abnormalities and associated diseases
Sphingomyelin can accumulate in a rare hereditary disease called Niemann-Pick Disease, types A and B. It is a genetically-inherited disease caused by a deficiency in the enzyme Sphingomyelinase, which causes the accumulation of Sphingomyelin in spleen, liver, lungs, bone marrow, and the brain, causing irreversible neurological damage. Of the two types involving Sphingomyelinase, type A occurs in infants. It is characterized by jaundice, an enlarged liver, and profound brain damage. Children with this type rarely live beyond 18 months. Type B involves an enlarged liver and spleen, which usually occurs in the pre-teen years. The brain is not affected. Most patients present with <1% normal levels of the enzyme in comparison to normal levels.
An excess of spingomyelin in the red blood cell membrane (as in abetalipoproteinemia) causes excess lipid accumulation in the outer leaflet of the red blood cell plasma membrane. This results in abnormally shaped red cells called acanthocytes.
Ball-and-stick model of sphingomyelin
Skeletal formula of sphingomyelin
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