Branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) are used in attempts to reduce blood ammonia in patients with cirrhosis and intermittent hepatic encephalopathy based on the hypothesis that BCAA stimulate muscle ammonia detoxification. We studied the effects of an oral dose of BCAA on the skeletal muscle metabolism of ammonia and amino acids in 14 patients with cirrhosis and in 7 healthy subjects by combining (13)N-ammonia positron emission tomography (PET) of the thigh muscle with measurements of blood flow and A-V concentrations of ammonia and amino acids. PET was used to measure the metabolism of blood-supplied ammonia and the A-V measurements were used to measure the total ammonia metabolism across the thigh muscle.
After intake of BCAA, blood ammonia increased more than 30% in both groups of subjects (both P < 0.05). Muscle clearance of blood-supplied ammonia (PET) was unaffected (P = 0.75), but the metabolic removal rate (PET) increased significantly due to increased blood ammonia in both groups (all P < 0.05). The total ammonia clearance across the leg muscle (A-V) increased by more than 50% in both groups, and the flux (A-V) of ammonia increased by more than 45% (all P < 0.05). BCAA intake led to a massive glutamine release from the muscle (patients, P < 0.05; healthy subjects, P = 0.12). In conclusion, BCAA enhanced the intrinsic muscle metabolism of ammonia but not the metabolism of blood-supplied ammonia in both the patients with cirrhosis and in the healthy subjects.