Etiopathogenesis of nonalcoholic steatohepatitis

Semin Liver Dis. 2001;21(1):27-41. doi: 10.1055/s-2001-12927.


The definable causes of nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) include jejunoileal bypass surgery (JIB), other causes of rapid and profound weight loss in obese subjects, total parenteral nutrition, drugs, industrial toxins, copper toxicity, and disorders characterized by extreme insulin resistance. However, the etiopathogenesis in most cases of NASH appears multifactorial. Obesity, type 2 diabetes, and hypertriglyceridemia are often associated with hepatic steatosis, and although this does not invariably lead to NASH, the fatty liver is vulnerable to hepatocellular injury initiated by reactive oxygen species (ROS). It is critical to understand not only the triggers for hepatitis (injury and inflammation) in NASH but also how this is perpetuated as chronic liver disease. The present focus is on whether the biochemical processes that generate oxidative stress lead to hepatocyte injury and secondary recruitment of inflammation or whether inflammation is the primary mediator of liver cell injury. Insulin resistance is a reproducible pathogenic factor in NASH. It favors accumulation of free fatty acids in the liver and predisposes to oxidative stress by stimulating microsomal lipid peroxidases and by the direct effects of high insulin levels in decreasing mitochondrial beta-oxidation. CYP2E1 is normally suppressed by insulin but is invariably increased in the livers of patients with NASH. In rodent dietary models of steatohepatitis, CYP2E1 is the catalyst of microsomal lipid peroxidation, while in Cyp 2e1 nullizygous mice, CYP4A proteins are induced and function as alternative microsomal lipid peroxidases. Other studies implicate activation of peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor-alpha (PPAR alpha) as leading to NASH; PPAR alpha is a transcription factor that governs both microsomal (via CYP4A) and peroxisomal (beta-oxidation) pathways of lipid oxidation and ultimately production of ROS. Increased lipid peroxidation is a crucial difference between the livers of rodents with experimental NASH and those of ob/ob genetically obese mice that have uncomplicated steatosis. Administration of endotoxin, through the release of tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), provokes liver inflammation with hepatocyte injury in the steatotic liver. This may be particularly relevant in JIB and has been suggested as a pathogenic mechanism in primary NASH. It has been proposed that inheriting one or more copies of the hemochromatosis gene, C282Y, promotes fibrotic progression in NASH because of increased hepatic iron deposition, but recent studies have failed to confirm this. The relationship between the severity of hepatitis in NASH and progression to cirrhosis implies that products of the inflammatory infiltrate play a role in fibrogenesis. In summary, NASH can be regarded as the hepatic consequence of the metabolic syndrome (or syndrome X). Attention should now shift from steatosis, a generally benign process that is less evident in the advanced stages of cirrhosis, to the mechanisms for hepatocellular injury, inflammation, and hepatic fibrosis. In particular, the genetic, molecular, and cellular factors that ordain and moderate fibrosis in the context of steatohepatitis will be of greatest relevance to effective therapy and clinical outcome.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Chronic Disease
  • Fatty Liver / chemically induced
  • Fatty Liver / etiology*
  • Humans
  • Oxidative Stress
  • Risk Factors