Hyperammonemia is mainly found in hepatic encephalopathy and in genetic defects of the urea cycle or other pathways of the intermediary metabolism. Clinically a difference has to be made between chronic moderate hyperammonemia and acutely increased concentrations. Pathogenetic mechanisms of ammonia toxicity to the brain are partly unraveled. In some animal models confounding variables, such as the reduced intake of food and amino acid imbalance due to liver insufficiency, do not allow to establish unequivocal causal relationships between the ammonia concentration and measured effects. In chronic moderate hyperammonemia an increased flux through the serotonin pathway is a key factor. It is caused by an increased transport of large neutral amino acids (including tryptophan) through the blood-brain barrier, accentuated by the imbalance of plasma amino acids in hepatic insufficiency. It is stimulated by D- or L-glutamine. Evidence is presented showing that a functioning γ-glutamyl cycle (glutathione formation) is a prerequisite. In acute hyperammonemia involvement of NMDA receptors, glutamate, NO and cGMP plays an additional role. In hyperammonemic crises the increased cerebral blood flow leads to brain edema; factors discussed here are increased osmolytes in astrocytes and serotoninergic activity. Recent data indicate that axonal development is affected by ammonia and can be normalized in vitro by creatine supplementation in developing mixed brain cell aggregate cultures, thus reviving the old hypothesis of the impact of hyperammonemia on energy metabolism in the developing brain that could cause mental retardation.
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