Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is characterized by chronic intermittent hypoxia (CIH). OSA is associated with nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) in obese subjects. The aim of this study was to investigate the effects of CIH on the liver in the absence of obesity. Lean C57BL/6J mice (n = 15) on a regular chow diet were exposed to CIH for 12 weeks and compared with pair-fed mice exposed to intermittent air (IA, n = 15). CIH caused liver injury with an increase in serum ALT (224 +/- 39 U/l versus 118 +/- 22 U/l in the IA group, P < 0.05), whereas AST and alkaline phosphatase were unchanged. CIH also induced hyperglycemia, a decrease in fasting serum insulin levels, and mild elevation of fasting serum total cholesterol and triglycerides (TG). Liver TG content was unchanged, whereas cholesterol content was decreased. Histology showed swelling of hepatocytes, no evidence of hepatic steatosis, and marked accumulation of glycogen in hepatocytes. CIH led to lipid peroxidation of liver tissue with a malondialdehyde (MDA)/free fatty acids (FFA) ratio of 0.54 +/- 0.07 mmol/mol versus 0.30 +/- 0.01 mmol/mol in control animals (P < 0.01), and increased levels of active nuclear factor kappaB (NF-kappaB) in the nuclear fraction of hepatocytes, suggesting that CIH induced oxidative stress in the liver. Finally, CIH greatly exacerbated acetaminophen-induced liver toxicity, causing fulminant hepatocellular injury.
Conclusion: In the absence of obesity, CIH leads to mild liver injury via oxidative stress and excessive glycogen accumulation in hepatocytes and sensitizes the liver to a second insult, whereas NASH does not develop.