Published online Mar 27, 2012. doi: 10.4254/wjh.v4.i3.50
Revised: November 19, 2011
Accepted: February 24, 2012
Published online: March 27, 2012
Hepatic encephalopathy (HE) is a neuropsychiatric complex syndrome, ranging from subtle behavioral abnormalities to deep coma and death. Hepatic encephalopathy emerges as the major complication of acute or chronic liver failure. Multiplicity of factors are involved in its pathophysiology, such as central and neuromuscular neurotransmission disorder, alterations in sleep patterns and cognition, changes in energy metabolism leading to cell injury, an oxidative/nitrosative state and a neuroinflammatory condition. Moreover, in acute HE, a condition of imminent threat of death is present due to a deleterious astrocyte swelling. In chronic HE, changes in calcium signaling, mitochondrial membrane potential and long term potential expression, N-methyl-D-aspartate-cGMP and peripheral benzodiazepine receptors alterations, and changes in the mRNA and protein expression and redistribution in the cerebral blood flow can be observed. The main molecule indicated as responsible for all these changes in HE is ammonia. There is no doubt that ammonia, a neurotoxic molecule, triggers or at least facilitates most of these changes. Ammonia plasma levels are increased two- to three-fold in patients with mild to moderate cirrhotic HE and up to ten-fold in patients with acute liver failure. Hepatic and inter-organ trafficking of ammonia and its metabolite, glutamine (GLN), lead to hyperammonemic conditions. Removal of hepatic ammonia is a differentiated work that includes the hepatocyte, through the urea cycle, converting ammonia into GLN via glutamine synthetase. Under pathological conditions, such as liver damage or liver blood by-pass, the ammonia plasma level starts to rise and the risk of HE developing is high. Knowledge of the pathophysiology of HE is rapidly expanding and identification of focally localized triggers has led the development of new possibilities for HE to be considered. This editorial will focus on issues where, to the best of our knowledge, more research is needed in order to clarify, at least partially, controversial topics.