Neuroscience Research Unit, Hôpital Saint-Luc (CRCHUM), Université de Montréal, Montreal, Québec, Canada.
Although ammonia is considered the main factor involved in the pathogenesis of hepatic encephalopathy (HE), it correlates well with the severity of HE in acute liver failure, but not in chronic liver disease. Oxidative stress is another factor believed to play a role in the pathogenesis of this syndrome; it represents an imbalance between the production and neutralization of reactive oxygen species, which leads to cellular dysfunction. In the setting of liver disease, oxidative stress represents a systemic phenomenon induced by several mechanisms: decreased antioxidant synthesis, increased systemic release of oxidant enzymes, generation of reactive oxygen species, and impaired neutrophil function. High ammonia concentrations induce cerebral oxidative stress, thus contributing to severe hepatic encephalopathy, as observed in acute liver failure. In chronic liver disease, significantly lower degrees of hyperammonemia (<500 μM) do not induce cerebral nor systemic oxidative stress. Data from both animal and human studies sustain that there is a synergistic effect between systemic oxidative stress, and ammonia that is implicated in the pathogenesis of hepatic encephalopathy.