Sphingolipid/cholesterol regulation of neurotransmitter receptor conformation and function.
Like all other monomeric or multimeric transmembrane proteins, receptors for neurotransmitters are surrounded by a shell of lipids which form an interfacial boundary between the protein and the bulk membrane. Among these lipids, cholesterol and sphingolipids have attracted much attention because of their well-known propensity to segregate into ordered platform domains commonly referred to as lipid rafts. In this review we present a critical analysis of the molecular mechanisms involved in the interaction of cholesterol/sphingolipids with neurotransmitter receptors, in particular acetylcholine and serotonin receptors, chosen as representative members of ligand-gated ion channels and G protein-coupled receptors. Cholesterol and sphingolipids interact with these receptors through typical binding sites located in both the transmembrane helices and the extracellular loops. By altering the conformation of the receptors ("chaperone-like" effect), these lipids can regulate neurotransmitter binding, signal transducing functions, and, in the case of multimeric receptors, subunit assembly and subsequent receptor trafficking to the cell surface. Several sphingolipids (especially gangliosides) also exhibit low/moderate affinity for neurotransmitters. We suggest that such lipids could facilitate (i) the attachment of neurotransmitters to the post-synaptic membrane and in some cases (ii) their subsequent delivery to specific protein receptors. Overall, various experimental approaches provide converging evidence that the biological functions of neurotransmitters and their receptors are highly dependent upon sphingolipids and cholesterol, which are active partners of synaptic transmission. Several decades of research have been necessary to untangle the skein of a complex network of molecular interactions between neurotransmitters, their receptors, cholesterol and sphingolipids. This sophisticated crosstalk between all four distinctive partners may allow a fine biochemical tuning of synaptic transmission.