The role of inhibitory amino acidergic neurotransmission in hepatic encephalopathy: a critical overview

Metab Brain Dis. 2002 Dec;17(4):283-94. doi: 10.1023/a:1021901700493.


Gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) is the main inhibitory amino acid in the central nervous system (CNS). Experiments with animal models of HE, and with brain slices or cultured CNS cells treated with ammonia, have documented changes in GABA distribution and transport, and modulation of the responses of both the GABA(A)-benzodiazepine receptor complex and GABA(B) receptors. Although many of the data point to an enhancement of GABAergic transmission probably contributing to HE, the evidence is not unequivocal. The major weaknesses of the GABA theory are (1) in a vast majority of HE models, there were no alterations of GABA content in the brain tissue and/or extracellular space, indicating that exposure of neurons to GABA may not have been altered, (2) changes in the affinity and capacity of GABA receptor binding were either absent or qualitatively different in HE models of comparable severity and duration, and (3) no sound changes in the GABAergic system parameters were noted in clinical cases of HE. Taurine (Tau) is an amino acid that is thought to mimic GABA function because of its agonistic properties towards GABA(A) receptors, and to contribute to neuroprotection and osmoregulation. These effects require Tau redistribution between the different cell compartments and the extracellular space. Acute treatment with ammonia evokes massive release of radiolabeled or endogenous Tau from CNS tissues in vivo and in vitro, and the underlying mechanism of Tau release differs from the release evoked by depolarizing conditions or hypoosmotic treatment. Subacute or chronic HE, and also long-term treatment of cultured CNS cells in vitro with ammonia, increase spontaneous Tau "leakage" from the tissue. This is accompanied by a decreased potassium- or hypoosmolarity-induced release of Tau and often by cell swelling, indicating impaired osmoregulation. In in vivo models of HE, Tau leakage is manifested by its increased accumulation in the extrasynaptic space, which may promote inhibitory neurotransmission and/or cell membrane protection. In chronic HE in humans, decreased Tau content in CNS is thought to be one of the causes of cerebral edema. However, understanding of the impact of the changes in Tau content and transport on the pathogenic mechanisms of HE is hampered by the lack of clear-cut evidence regarding the various roles of Tau in the normal CNS.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acids / metabolism*
  • Animals
  • Hepatic Encephalopathy / physiopathology*
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neural Inhibition*
  • Synaptic Transmission*
  • Taurine / metabolism
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid / metabolism


  • Amino Acids
  • Taurine
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid