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Neurochem Int. 2006 Sep;49(4):372-8. Epub 2006 Mar 24.

Increased levels of pregnenolone and its neuroactive metabolite allopregnanolone in autopsied brain tissue from cirrhotic patients who died in hepatic coma.

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Neuroscience Research Unit, CHUM (Hôpital Saint-Luc) Quebec, Canada H2X 3J4.


It has been suggested that neurosteroids with agonist properties at the central GABA-A receptor are implicated in the pathogenesis of hepatic encephalopathy (HE) in chronic liver disease. In order to address this issue, gas chromatography/mass spectrometry was used to measure the neurosteroids pregnenolone, allopregnanolone, and tetrahydrodeoxycorticosterone (THDOC) in postmortem brain tissue from controls, cirrhotic patients who died without HE, a patient who died in uremic coma, and cirrhotic patients who died in hepatic coma. Exposure of rat cerebral cortical membranes to brain extracts from hepatic coma patients resulted in a 53% (p < 0.001) increase in binding of [3H]muscimol, a GABA-A receptor ligand. Subsequent GC/MS analysis showed that concentrations of the GABA-A receptor agonist neurosteroid allopregnanolone were significantly increased in brain tissue from hepatic coma patients compared to patients without HE or controls (p < 0.001). Brain allopregnanolone concentrations were significantly correlated with the magnitude of induction of [3H]muscimol binding (r2 = 0.82, p < 0.0001). Concentrations of allopregnanolone comparable to those observed in hepatic coma brains are pathophysiologically relevant. Concentrations of the neurosteroid precursor pregnenolone were also increased in brain tissue from hepatic coma patients, while those of a second neurosteroid THDOC were below the levels of detection in all groups. Brain concentrations of benzodiazepine receptor ligands estimated by radioreceptor assay were not significantly increased in cirrhotic patients with or without hepatic coma. These findings suggest that increased levels of allopregnanolone rather than "endogenous benzodiazepines" offer a cogent explanation for the phenomenon of "increased GABAergic tone" previously proposed in HE.

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