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Sphingolipids, Sphingomyelin and Gangliosides play important roles for neuronal growth, brain maturation, signal transduction of nerve cells, and the effective delivery of critical nutrients for optimum growth. In recognizing the important benefits these nutrients provide, Megmilk Snow Brand is the first to introduce them into milk formula


Cell Signaling and Cellular Functions

Sphingolipid is one of the important and major components of a cell membrane, and is distributed widely in body and play key roles in cell recognition and signal transduction between cells [1, 2, 3].


Sphingolipids and its metabolites (ceramide and sphingosine) help to regulate cell growth, migration, differentiation and apoptosis by serving as intercellular “second messengers” for bioactive compounds such as growth factors and cytokines [1, 2, 3] in a variety of cellular signalling pathways. Cytokines are a category of cell signalling molecules used extensively in intercellular communication.


Sphingolipids, especially Sphingomyelin, also contribute to the myelination of nerve cells. Myelination is referred to as the production of the myelin sheath, usually around the axon of a neuron. A myelin is a diaelectric (electrically insulating) material that forms the myelin sheath. The myelin sheath helps increase the speed of impulses and waves across cells and prevents electrical current from leaving the axon.


Brain Development

Sphingolipids, especially sphingomyelin and ganglioside, accumulate in brain through early childhood, [4, 5] and it is well known that Sphingolipids and its metabolites have important roles for neuronal growth, maturation in the brain [6, 7, 8] and for signal transduction of nerve cells, especially at synapse [9,10]. A synapse is a structure or point of connection that permits a nerve cell (a neuron) to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another target cell.


Reports show that orally administered ganglioside is absorbed in intestine and accumulates in the brain [11]. Tests on rats show improved learning ability and memory formation [12, 13, 14]. It is also suggested that orally administered sphingomyelin enhances the mental development of human infants [15].


Gastrointestinal Maturation

Sphingomyelin enhances the morphological maturation and functionality of the intestine [15]. This is important to ensure optimal nutrition supply, by improving lipid digestion and absorption, from food. This is true especially for hydrophobic compounds like DHA, ARA, and other lipids, because sphingolipids act as naturally occurring emulsifiers and form micelles, which helps the transportation of these hydrophobic substances into the intestine.


Sphingomyelin also protects the intestine against pathogenic bacteria, preventing diarrhoea and other digestive problems [18].

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Effects on Colon Carcinogenesis

Normal intestinal cells undergo rapid turnover, except in cancer in which there is loss of normal growth arrest and apoptosis. The digestion of sphingomyelin to ceramide and sphingosine may reduce the risk of colon cancer by inducing growth arrest, differentiation and/or apoptosis of malignant tumour type cells [2, 21, 22].


A Powerful Cholesterol Reducing Substance

Sphingomyelin is a major constituent of the plasma membrane of cells where it is concentrated together with glycosphingolipids and cholesterol [20] Sphingomyelin competes with cholesterol for the loading of intestinal mixed micelles, thereby reducing plasma cholesterol. In consequence, cholesterol uptake from food is minimized leading to a significant reduction of LDL cholesterol and, at the same time, able to raise the “good” HDL cholesterol [18]


Presence in food may protect against Bacteria Toxins and Infection

Many microorganisms, microbial toxins, viruses and bacteria bind to cells via sphingolipids, common examples include cholera toxin, E. coli, and influenza viruses [2].


Sphingolipids are effective in inhibiting the binding of bacteria and viruses19 and it is plausible that sphingolipids in food also compete for cellular binding sites and facilitate the elimination of pathologic organisms from the intestine [2]. Glycosphingolipids have been hypothesized to be one of the nonimmunoglobulin compounds in human milk that confer protection against pathogens [2].


Gangliosides provide protection against pathogens and is a well known receptor of bacterial toxin and infectious bacteria such as E. coli and influenza virus [16, 17] Newborn babies given an adapted milk formula supplemented with gangliosides had significantly fewer E. coli in faeces (and higher faecal bifidobacterial counts) than infants fed with a control formula [18, 23].


  1. Merrill Jr., A.H., Sandhoff, K. (2002). Sphingolipids: Metabolism and Cell Signaling. In Vance, D.E. & Vance, J.E. (Eds.), Biochemistry of Lipids, Lipoproteins and Membranes (4th Edn.) (pp. 375-407). Elsevier B.V

  2. Vesper, H. et al. (1999). Sphingolipid in Foods and the Emerging Importance of Sphingolipids to Nutrition. The Journal of Nutrition, vol.129, 1239-1250.

  3. Merrill Jr., A.H. et al. (1997). Sphingolipids - The Enigmatic Lipid Class: Biochemistry, Physiology, and Pathophysiology. Toxicol Applied Pharmacol, vol.142, 208-225.

  4. Svennnerholm, L. (1968). Distribution and Fatty Acid Composition of Phosphoglycerides in Normal Human Brain. The Journal of Lipid Research, vol.9, 570-579.

  5. Vanier, M.T. et al. (1971). Developmental Profiles of Gangliosides in Human and Rat Brain. Journal of Neurochemistry, vol.18, 581-592.

  6. Harada, J. et al. (2004). Sphingosine-1-Phosphate Induces Proliferation and Morphological Changes of Neural Progenitor Cells. Journal of Neurochemistry, vol.88, 1026-1039.

  7. Jennemann, R. et al. (2005). Cell-Specific Deletion of Glucosylceramide Synthase in Brain Leads to Severe Neural Defects After Birth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol.102, 12459-12464.

  8. Yu, R.K. et al (2009). The Role of Glycosphingolipid Metabolism in the Developing Brain The Journal of Lipid Research, vol.50:S440-S445.

  9. Oshida, K. et al. (2003). Effects of Dietary Sphingomyelin on Central Nervous System Myelination in Developing Rats. Pedeatric Research, vol.53, 589-593.

  10. Brailoiu, E. and Dun, M.J. (2003). Extra- and Intracellular Sphingosylphosphorylcholine Promote Spontaneous Transmitter Release from Frog Motor Nerve Endings. Molecular Pharmacology, vol.63, 1430-1436.