Sialic acids (Sias) are the most abundant terminal sugar residues of glycoproteins and glycolipids on the surface of mammalian cells. The nervous tissue is the organ with the highest expression level of Sias. The ‘sialylation’ of glycoconjugates is performed via sialyltransferases, whereas ‘desialylation’ is done by sialidases or is a possible consequence of oxidative damage. Sialic acid residues on the neural cell surfaces inhibit complement and microglial activation, as well as phagocytosis of the underlying structures, via binding to (i) complement factor H (CFH) or (ii) sialic acid-binding immunoglobulin-like lectin (SIGLEC) receptors. In contrast, activated microglial cells show sialidase activity that desialylates both microglia and neurons, and further stimulates innate immunity via microglia and complement activation. The desialylation conveys neurons to become susceptible to phagocytosis, as well as triggers a microglial phagocytosis-associated oxidative burst and inflammation. Dysfunctions of the ‘Sia–SIGLEC’ and/or ‘Sia–complement’ axes often lead to neurological diseases. Thus, Sias on glycoconjugates of the intact glycocalyx and its desialylation are major regulators of neuroinflammation.
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