Stressful learning paradigm precludes manifestation of cognitive ability in sphingomyelin synthase-2 knockout mice

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Sphingomyelin synthases (SMSs) are enzymes converting ceramide to sphingomyelin. The behavioral phenotype attributed to their disruption has not been well described. We examined learning ability and hippocampal synaptic plasticity in mice deficient in SMS2 (SMS2 KO). In context-dependent fear learning and novel object recognition test, no difference in learning ability was detected in SMS2 KO and wild-type (WT) mice. By contrast, achievement of the Morris water maze (MWM) test was deteriorated in SMS2 KO mice. In the hippocampal CA1, while the basic synaptic transmission was normal, both short- and long-term synaptic plasticity was moderately suppressed. We interpret that the MWM test taking place in wet environment may represent learning paradigm under more stressful condition than those performed in dry conditions, and that the learning ability of SMS2 KO mice failed to manifest itself fully in stressful situations. In agreement, forced swimming induced depression-like behavior more easily in SMS2 KO mice. Mass spectrometry suggested a slightly altered species distribution of ceramide in the hippocampus of SMS2 KO mice. These findings support the proposal that altered synthesis of ceramide, which is the substrate of SMS2 and therefore expected to be modified in SMS2 KO mice, is associated with depression-like tendency in animal models and depressive disorder in humans.

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