Ammonia metabolism and hyperammonemic disorders

Adv Clin Chem. 2014:67:73-150. doi: 10.1016/bs.acc.2014.09.002. Epub 2014 Nov 4.


Human adults produce around 1000 mmol of ammonia daily. Some is reutilized in biosynthesis. The remainder is waste and neurotoxic. Eventually most is excreted in urine as urea, together with ammonia used as a buffer. In extrahepatic tissues, ammonia is incorporated into nontoxic glutamine and released into blood. Large amounts are metabolized by the kidneys and small intestine. In the intestine, this yields ammonia, which is sequestered in portal blood and transported to the liver for ureagenesis, and citrulline, which is converted to arginine by the kidneys. The amazing developments in NMR imaging and spectroscopy and molecular biology have confirmed concepts derived from early studies in animals and cell cultures. The processes involved are exquisitely tuned. When they are faulty, ammonia accumulates. Severe acute hyperammonemia causes a rapidly progressive, often fatal, encephalopathy with brain edema. Chronic milder hyperammonemia causes a neuropsychiatric illness. Survivors of severe neonatal hyperammonemia have structural brain damage. Proposed explanations for brain edema are an increase in astrocyte osmolality, generally attributed to glutamine accumulation, and cytotoxic oxidative/nitrosative damage. However, ammonia neurotoxicity is multifactorial, with disturbances also in neurotransmitters, energy production, anaplerosis, cerebral blood flow, potassium, and sodium. Around 90% of hyperammonemic patients have liver disease. Inherited defects are rare. They are being recognized increasingly in adults. Deficiencies of urea cycle enzymes, citrin, and pyruvate carboxylase demonstrate the roles of isolated pathways in ammonia metabolism. Phenylbutyrate is used routinely to treat inherited urea cycle disorders, and its use for hepatic encephalopathy is under investigation.

Keywords: Ammonia toxicity; Anaplerosis; Glutamine; Hepatic encephalopathy; Hyperammonemia; Malate–aspartate shuttle; Phenylbutyrate; Urea cycle; Urea cycle defects.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Ammonia / metabolism*
  • Ammonia / toxicity
  • Animals
  • Arginine / metabolism
  • Biological Transport
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Hyperammonemia / etiology*
  • Hyperinsulinism / genetics
  • Hyperinsulinism / metabolism
  • Liver / metabolism
  • Liver Diseases / metabolism
  • Pyruvate Carboxylase Deficiency Disease / etiology
  • Syndrome
  • Urea / metabolism
  • Urologic Diseases / metabolism
  • Urologic Diseases / microbiology
  • Valproic Acid / adverse effects


  • Valproic Acid
  • Ammonia
  • Urea
  • Arginine