Sphingolipid metabolism starts with the biosynthesis of ceramide, a bioactive lipid and the backbone for the biosynthesis of complex sphingolipids such as sphingomyelin and glycosphingolipids. These are degraded back to ceramide and then to sphingosine, which enters the ceramide–sphingosine-1-phosphate signaling pathway or is further degraded. Several enzymes with multiple catalytic properties and subcellular localizations are thus involved in such metabolism. Hereditary defects of lysosomal hydrolases have been known for several years to be the cause of lysosomal storage diseases such as gangliosidoses, Gaucher disease, Niemann–Pick disease, Krabbe disease, Fabry disease, and Farber disease. More recently, many other inborn errors of sphingolipid metabolism have been recognized, involving enzymes responsible for the biosynthesis of ceramide, sphingomyelin, and glycosphingolipids. Concurrently, epidemiologic and biochemical evidence has established a link between Gaucher disease and Parkinson’s disease, showing that glucocerebrosidase variants predispose individuals to α-synuclein accumulation and neurodegeneration even in the heterozygous status. This appears to be due not only to lysosomal overload of non-degraded glucosylceramide, but to the derangement of vesicle traffic and autophagy, including mitochondrial autophagy, triggered by both sphingolipid intermediates and misfolded proteins. In this review, old and novel disorders of sphingolipid metabolism, in particular those of ganglioside biosynthesis, are evaluated in light of recent investigations of the link between Gaucher disease and Parkinson’s disease, with the aim of better understanding their pathogenic mechanisms and addressing new potential therapeutic strategies.
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