The metabolic role of isoleucine in detoxification of ammonia in cultured mouse neurons and astrocytes

Neurochem Int. 2007 Jun;50(7-8):1042-51. doi: 10.1016/j.neuint.2007.01.009. Epub 2007 Feb 6.


Cerebral hyperammonemia is a hallmark of hepatic encephalopathy, a debilitating condition arising secondary to liver disease. Pyruvate oxidation including tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle metabolism has been suggested to be inhibited by hyperammonemia at the pyruvate and alpha-ketoglutarate dehydrogenase steps. Catabolism of the branched-chain amino acid isoleucine provides both acetyl-CoA and succinyl-CoA, thus by-passing both the pyruvate dehydrogenase and the alpha-ketoglutarate dehydrogenase steps. Potentially, this will enable the TCA cycle to work in the face of ammonium-induced inhibition. In addition, this will provide the alpha-ketoglutarate carbon skeleton for glutamate and glutamine synthesis by glutamate dehydrogenase and glutamine synthetase (astrocytes only), respectively, both reactions fixing ammonium. Cultured cerebellar neurons (primarily glutamatergic) or astrocytes were incubated in the presence of either [U-13C]glucose (2.5 mM) and isoleucine (1 mM) or [U-13C]isoleucine and glucose. Cell cultures were treated with an acute ammonium chloride load of 2 (astrocytes) or 5 mM (neurons and astrocytes) and incorporation of 13C-label into glutamate, aspartate, glutamine and alanine was determined employing mass spectrometry. Labeling from [U-13C]glucose in glutamate and aspartate increased as a result of ammonium-treatment in both neurons and astrocytes, suggesting that the TCA cycle was not inhibited. Labeling in alanine increased in neurons but not in astrocytes, indicating elevated glycolysis in neurons. For both neurons and astrocytes, labeling from [U-13C]isoleucine entered glutamate and aspartate albeit to a lower extent than from [U-13C]glucose. Labeling in glutamate and aspartate from [U-13C]isoleucine was decreased by ammonium treatment in neurons but not in astrocytes, the former probably reflecting increased metabolism of unlabeled glucose. In astrocytes, ammonia treatment resulted in glutamine production and release to the medium, partially supported by catabolism of [U-13C]isoleucine. In conclusion, i) neuronal and astrocytic TCA cycle metabolism was not inhibited by ammonium and ii) isoleucine may provide the carbon skeleton for synthesis of glutamate/glutamine in the detoxification of ammonium.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Ammonia / toxicity*
  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn
  • Astrocytes / drug effects
  • Astrocytes / physiology*
  • Carbon Isotopes
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Citric Acid Cycle
  • Glucose / metabolism
  • Inactivation, Metabolic / physiology*
  • Isoleucine / metabolism*
  • Isotope Labeling
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred Strains
  • Models, Biological
  • Neurons / drug effects
  • Neurons / physiology*


  • Carbon Isotopes
  • Isoleucine
  • Ammonia
  • Glucose