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Metab Brain Dis. 1989 Sep;4(3):213-23.

Ammonia-induced swelling of rat cerebral cortical slices: implications for the pathogenesis of brain edema in acute hepatic failure.

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  • 1Department of Medicine, Lakeside VA Medical Center, Chicago, Illinois 60611.


The pathogenesis of brain edema in fulminant hepatic failure is incompletely understood. Our previous studies in models of this disease suggest the presence of a cytotoxic mechanism; as cortical astrocytes appeared predominantly swollen, we hypothesized that ammonia, metabolized to glutamine solely within this cell, could play a role in brain water accumulation. We determined ammonia levels in different brain regions of rats after hepatic devascularization, a model previously shown to exhibit brain edema. Concentrations of 2.5 mM were observed in the edematous cerebral cortex. We then added several concentrations of ammonium chloride to the first cortical brain slice, a preparation used to study cytotoxic brain edema. At a final bath concentration of ammonia of 5 and 10 mM, swelling could be detected: a decrease in the space of distribution of inulin was seen at the 10 mM concentration, suggesting intracellular water accumulation. Neuropathologically, astrocytes appeared involved even at subswelling doses of ammonia. Octanoic acid, at a 10 mM concentration, also resulted in demonstrable swelling. Ammonia, at concentrations in the incubation bath that approach the levels seen in an in vivo model of brain edema, results in water accumulation of cortical brain slices. Toxins implicated in the pathogenesis of hepatic encephalopathy, such as ammonia and octanoic acid, may, result in brain water accumulation.

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