The neurological manifestations of acute liver failure

Neurochem Int. 2012 Jun;60(7):662-71. doi: 10.1016/j.neuint.2011.10.006. Epub 2011 Nov 2.


Acute liver failure is a disorder which impacts on multiple organ systems and results from hepatocellular necrosis in a patient with no previous history of chronic liver disease. It typically culminates in the development of liver dysfunction, coagulopathy and encephalopathy, and is associated with high mortality in poor prognostic groups. In acute liver failure, some patients may develop cerebral edema and increased intracranial pressure although recent data suggest that intracranial hypertension is less frequent than previously described, complicating 29% of acute cases who have proceeded to grade 3/4 coma. Neurological manifestations are primarily underpinned by the development of brain edema. The onset of encephalopathy can be rapid and dramatic with the development of asterixis, delirium, hyperreflexia, clonus, seizures, extensor posturing and coma. Ammonia plays a definitive role in the development of cytotoxic brain edema. Patients with acute liver failure have a marked propensity to develop renal insufficiency and hence impaired ammonia excretion. The incidence of both bacterial and fungal infection occurs in approximately one third of patients. The relationship between inflammation, as opposed to infection, and progression of encephalopathy is similar to that observed in chronic liver disease. Intracranial pressure monitoring is valuable in identifying surges in intracranial hypertension requiring intervention. Insertion of an intracranial bolt should be considered only in the subgroup of patients who have progressed to grade 4 coma. Risk factors for developing intracranial hypertension are those with hyperacute and acute etiologies, progression to grade 3/4 hepatic encephalopathy, those who develop pupillary abnormalities (dilated pupils, sluggishly responsive to light) or seizures, have systemic inflammation, an arterial ammonia >150 μmol/L, hyponatremia, and those in receipt of vasopressor support. Strategies employed in patients with established encephalopathy (grade 3/4) aim to maintain freedom from infection/inflammatory milieu, provide adequate sedation, and correct hypo-osmolality.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain Edema / epidemiology
  • Brain Edema / etiology*
  • Brain Edema / physiopathology
  • Brain Edema / therapy
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation
  • Humans
  • Intracranial Pressure
  • Liver Failure, Acute / complications*
  • Liver Failure, Acute / epidemiology
  • Monitoring, Physiologic
  • Risk Factors