Ammonia toxicity: from head to toe?

Metab Brain Dis. 2017 Apr;32(2):529-538. doi: 10.1007/s11011-016-9938-3. Epub 2016 Dec 24.


Ammonia is diffused and transported across all plasma membranes. This entails that hyperammonemia leads to an increase in ammonia in all organs and tissues. It is known that the toxic ramifications of ammonia primarily touch the brain and cause neurological impairment. However, the deleterious effects of ammonia are not specific to the brain, as the direct effect of increased ammonia (change in pH, membrane potential, metabolism) can occur in any type of cell. Therefore, in the setting of chronic liver disease where multi-organ dysfunction is common, the role of ammonia, only as neurotoxin, is challenged. This review provides insights and evidence that increased ammonia can disturb many organ and cell types and hence lead to dysfunction.

Keywords: Ammonia; Brain; Hepatic encephalopathy; Liver; Muscle; Toxicity.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Ammonia / metabolism*
  • Ammonia / toxicity*
  • Animals
  • Brain / pathology
  • Brain Chemistry
  • Hepatic Encephalopathy
  • Humans
  • Hyperammonemia / metabolism
  • Hyperammonemia / pathology
  • Muscle, Skeletal / pathology


  • Ammonia