Membrane lipid composition is central to the highly specialized functions of neurological tissues. In the retina, abnormal lipid metabolism causes severe forms of blindness, often through poorly understood neuronal cell death. Here, we demonstrate that deleting the de novo lipogenic enzyme fatty acid synthase (FAS) from the neural retina, but not the vascular retina, results in progressive neurodegeneration and blindness with a temporal pattern resembling rodent models of retinitis pigmentosa. Blindness was not rescued by protection from light-evoked activity; by eating a diet enriched in palmitate, the product of the FAS reaction; or by treatment with the PPARα agonist fenofibrate. Vision loss was due to aberrant synaptic structure, blunted responsiveness to glial-derived neurotrophic factor and ciliary neurotrophic factor, and eventual apoptotic cell loss. This progressive neurodegeneration was associated with decreased membrane cholesterol content, as well as loss of discrete n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid- and saturated fatty acid-containing phospholipid species within specialized membrane microdomains. Neurotrophic signaling was restored by exogenous cholesterol delivery. These findings implicate de novo lipogenesis in neurotrophin-dependent cell survival by maintaining retinal membrane configuration and lipid composition, and they suggest that ongoing lipogenesis may be required to prevent cell death in many forms of retinopathy.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJCI Insight
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 11 2018


  • Apoptosis
  • Lipid rafts
  • Metabolism
  • Neurodegeneration
  • Ophthalmology


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