Differential Activation of Acid Sphingomyelinase and Ceramide Release Determines Invasiveness of Neisseria meningitidis into Brain Endothelial Cells

The interaction with brain endothelial cells is central to the pathogenicity of Neisseria meningitidis infections. Here, we show that N. meningitidis causes transient activation of acid sphingomyelinase (ASM) followed by ceramide release in brain endothelial cells. In response to N. meningitidis infection, ASM and ceramide are displayed at the outer leaflet of the cell membrane and condense into large membrane platforms which also concentrate the ErbB2 receptor. The outer membrane protein Opc and phosphatidylcholine-specific phospholipase C that is activated upon binding of the pathogen to heparan sulfate proteoglycans, are required for N. meningitidis-mediated ASM activation. Pharmacologic or genetic ablation of ASM abrogated meningococcal internalization without affecting bacterial adherence. In accordance, the restricted invasiveness of a defined set of pathogenic isolates of the ST-11/ST-8 clonal complex into brain endothelial cells directly correlated with their restricted ability to induce ASM and ceramide release. In conclusion, ASM activation and ceramide release are essential for internalization of Opc-expressing meningococci into brain endothelial cells, and this segregates with invasiveness of N. meningitidis strains.