Brain edema in liver failure: basic physiologic principles and management

Liver Transpl. 2002 Nov;8(11):983-9. doi: 10.1053/jlts.2002.35779.


In patients with severe liver failure, brain edema is a frequent and serious complication that may result in high intracranial pressure and brain damage. This short article focuses on basic physiologic principles that determine water flux across the blood-brain barrier. Using the Starling equation, it is evident that both the osmotic and hydrostatic pressure gradients are imbalanced across the blood-brain barrier in patients with acute liver failure. This combination will tend to favor cerebral capillary water influx to the brain. In contrast, the disequilibration of the Starling forces seems to be less pronounced in patients with cirrhosis because the regulation of cerebral blood flow is preserved and the arterial ammonia concentration is lower compared with that of patients with acute liver failure. Treatments that are known to reverse high intracranial pressure tend to decrease the osmotic pressure gradients across the blood-brain barrier. Recent studies indicate that interventions that restrict cerebral blood flow, such as hyperventilation, hypothermia, and indomethacin, are also efficient in preventing edema and high intracranial pressure, probably by decreasing the transcapillary hydrostatic pressure gradient. In our opinion, it is important to recall that rational fluid therapy, adequate ventilation, and temperature control are of direct importance to controlling cerebral capillary water flux in patients with acute liver failure. These simple interventions should be secured before more advanced experimental technologies are instituted to treat these patients.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Animals
  • Blood-Brain Barrier
  • Body Water / metabolism
  • Brain Edema / etiology*
  • Brain Edema / physiopathology
  • Brain Edema / therapy*
  • Capillary Permeability
  • Humans
  • Hydrostatic Pressure
  • Liver Failure / complications*
  • Osmotic Pressure