Astrocyte Glutamine Synthetase: Importance in Hyperammonemic Syndromes and Potential Target for Therapy

Saul W. Brusilow, Raymond C. Koehler, Richard J. Traystman, Arthur J.L. Cooper

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

126 Scopus citations


Many theories have been advanced to explain the encephalopathy associated with chronic liver disease and with the less common acute form. A major factor contributing to hepatic encephalopathy is hyperammonemia resulting from portacaval shunting and/or liver damage. However, an increasing number of causes of hyperammonemic encephalopathy have been discovered that present with the same clinical and laboratory features found in acute liver failure, but without liver failure. Here, we critically review the physiology, pathology, and biochemistry of ammonia (i.e., NH3 plus NH4+) and show how these elements interact to constitute a syndrome that clinicians refer to as hyperammonemic encephalopathy (i.e., acute liver failure, fulminant hepatic failure, chronic liver disease). Included will be a brief history of the status of ammonia and the centrality of the astrocyte in brain nitrogen metabolism. Ammonia is normally detoxified in the liver and extrahepatic tissues by conversion to urea and glutamine, respectively. In the brain, glutamine synthesis is largely confined to astrocytes, and it is generally accepted that in hyperammonemia excess glutamine compromises astrocyte morphology and function. Mechanisms postulated to account for this toxicity will be examined with emphasis on the osmotic effects of excess glutamine (the osmotic gliopathy theory). Because hyperammonemia causes osmotic stress and encephalopathy in patients with normal or abnormal liver function alike, the term "hyperammonemic encephalopathy" can be broadly applied to encephalopathy resulting from liver disease and from various other diseases that produce hyperammonemia. Finally, the possibility that a brain glutamine synthetase inhibitor may be of therapeutic benefit, especially in the acute form of liver disease, is discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)452-470
Number of pages19
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2010


  • Astrocyte swelling
  • Cerebral edema
  • Glutamine synthetase
  • Hepatic encephalopathy
  • Hyperammonemia

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Pharmacology (medical)


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