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Metab Brain Dis. 2004 Dec;19(3-4):241-51.

Increased brain concentrations of endogenous (non-benzodiazepine) GABA-A receptor ligands in human hepatic encephalopathy.

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  • 1Neuroscience Research Unit, CHUM (Campus Saint-Luc), Montreal, Quebec, Canada.


It has been suggested that alterations of GABAergic neurotransmission are implicated in the pathophysiology of hepatic encephalopathy (HE). Increased concentrations of endogenous benzodiazepines with positive allosteric modulatory properties at the GABA-A receptor complex were proposed as a pathophysiological mechanism to explain increased GABAergic tone in HE. However, results of controlled trials with benzodiazepine receptor antagonists have yielded equivocal results and increases in benzodiazepine levels in body fluids of cirrhotic patients were suggested to be largely accounted for by previous pharmaceutical benzodiazepine intake. In the present study the issue of benzodiazepine receptor ligands in brains of cirrhotic patients, and their contribution to alterations of GABA-A receptor complex in HE are addressed. "Benzodiazepine-like" ligands were present in trace amounts in autopsied brain tissue from control subjects (0.2 +/- 0.2 ng/g tissue), and from cirrhotic patients not previously exposed to benzodiazepine medication (0.8 +/- 0.4 ng/g tissue). In contrast, these ligands accumulate in brain extracts from cirrhotic patients previously exposed to benzodiazepines by up to 200-fold (161.5 +/- 93.2 DE ng/g tissue). Brain extracts from cirrhotic patients increased the binding of the GABA-A receptor agonist [3H]muscimol. This increase was minimal with brain extracts from controls (6.8 +/- 2.8%), but was significant with brain extracts from cirrhotic patients without (29.4 +/- 2.7%), or with (55.1 +/- 7.6%) previous exposure to benzodiazepines. Addition of flumazenil, a selective benzodiazepine receptor antagonist did not significantly modify the increase of [3H]muscimol binding by brain extracts from patients without prior exposure to benzodiazepines and only partially inhibited the increase of [3H]muscimol binding in presence of brain extracts from cirrhotic patients previously exposed to benzodiazepines. These findings suggest the presence of nonbenzodiazepine substances (possibly neurosteroids) with positive allosteric modulatory properties at the GABA-A receptor complex in brain in hepatic encephalopathy.

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