• axon;
  • DIGs;
  • GM1;
  • hippocampal neurons;
  • sphingomyelin

Neuronal maturation is a gradual process; first axons and dendrites are established as distinct morphological entities; next the different intracellular organization of these processes occurs; and finally the specialized plasma membrane domains of these two compartments are formed. Only when this has been accomplished does proper neuronal function take place. In this work we present evidence that the correct distribution of a class of axonal membrane proteins requires a mechanism which involves formation of protein–lipid (sphingomyelin/cholesterol) detergent-insoluble complexes (DIGs). Using biochemistry and immunofluorescence microscopy we now show that in developing neurons the randomly distributed Thy-1 does not interact with lipids into DIGs (in fully developed neurons the formation of such complexes is essential for the correct axonal targeting of this protein). Using lipid mass spectrometry and thin layer chromatography we show that the DIG lipid missing in the developing neurons is sphingomyelin, but not cholesterol or glucosylceramide. Finally, by increasing the intracellular levels of sphingomyelin in the young neurons the formation of Thy-1/DIGs was induced and, consistent with a role in sorting, proper axonal distribution was facilitated. These results emphasize the role of sphingomyelin in axonal, and therefore, neuronal maturation.