Background & aims: GABAA receptors modulate the function of the glutamate-nitric oxide-guanosine 3',5'-cyclic monophosphate (cGMP) pathway, which is reduced in cerebellum in hyperammonemic rats. It has been proposed that hyperammonemia-induced increases in gamma-aminobutyric acid "(GABAergic) tone" contribute to the pathogenesis of hepatic encephalopathy (HE), although this has not been assessed in vivo in animal models. We studied whether chronic hyperammonemia in rats increases GABAergic tone in the cerebellum and/or cerebral cortex and whether this increase contributes to cognitive impairment.
Methods: We blocked GABAA receptors of rats with bicuculline and analyzed the function of this pathway in cerebellum and effects on learning ability.
Results: Hyperammonemia increased GABAergic tone in cerebellum but decreased it in the cerebral cortex of rats. Increased GABAergic tone in the cerebellum of rats with hyperammonemia could have been caused by increases in extracellular GABA; tetrahydrodeoxy-corticosterone (a neurosteroid that enhances GABAA receptor activation); or amounts of the alpha1, alpha6, and gamma2 subunits of GABAA receptors. The decrease in GABAergic tone observed in the cortex could have resulted from the reduced amount of GABAA receptors delta and gamma2 subunits or increased levels of pregnanolone (5-fold), which selectively reduces activation of GABAA receptors that contain alpha4 subunits (widely expressed in cortex but not in cerebellum). Treatment with bicuculline normalized GABAergic tone and restored the increase in cGMP that was induced by activation of N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors and learning ability in hyperammonemic rats.
Conclusions: Increased GABAergic tone in the cerebellum contributes to cognitive impairment in hyperammonemic rats.