Effect of sodium phenobarbital on bilirubin metabolism in an infant with congenital, nonhemolytic, unconjugated hyperbilirubinemia, and kernicterus

J Clin Invest. 1969 Jan;48(1):42-55. doi: 10.1172/JCI105973.


Sodium phenobarbital and various hormones, compounds capable of hepatic enzyme induction, were given to an infant boy with congenital, nonhemolytic, unconjugated, hyperbilirubinemia and severe kernicterus for prolonged periods between the ages of 2 and 25 months to determine their effect on serum bilirubin concentrations. Phenobarbital, 5 mg/day orally, on two occasions decreased serum bilirubin concentrations approximately threefold over a period of 30 days. Withdrawal of phenobarbital after the first study resulted in a gradual (30 days) return of serum bilirubin to pretreatment levels. The lower serum bilirubin concentrations observed when phenobarbital therapy was reinstituted were maintained for 61 days on 2.5 mg/kg per day of the drug. Orally administered L-triiodothyronine, 0.05-0.1 mg/day for 71 days, intramuscular human growth hormone, 1 mg/day for 21 days, and testosterone propionate, 0.1 mg/day for 9 days, did not decrease serum bilirubin levels below lowest control values of 18 mg/100 ml.Bilirubin-(3)H was administered twice before and once with bilirubin-(14)C during phenobarbital therapy to study the kinetics of bilirubin metabolism. Results of the first and second control studies and of the bilirubin-(3)H and bilirubin-(14)C phenobarbital studies, respectively, were as follows: total body bilirubin pools, 200, 184, 73, and 72 mg; half-lives, 111, 84, 37, and 39 hr; and turnover, 30, 37, 33, and 31 mg/day. The data show that the approximate threefold decrease in serum bilirubin concentration and total body pool resulted from a comparable decrease in bilirubin half-life without a significant change in turnover. In vitro histological (electron microscopy) and enzymological studies of liver obtained by surgical biopsies before and during phenobaribtal administration showed that both the hepatocyte content of agranular endoplasmic reticulum (AER) and the ability of liver homogenate to conjugate p-nitrophenol were significantly increased during phenobarbital treatment. The observations suggest that phenobarbital affects bilirubin metabolism by the induction of an enzyme(s) with a slow rate(s) of degradation (or rapid rate of degradation with limited capacity).

MeSH terms

  • Bilirubin / metabolism*
  • Carbon Isotopes
  • Crystallization
  • Growth Hormone
  • Humans
  • Hyperbilirubinemia, Hereditary / drug therapy
  • Hyperbilirubinemia, Hereditary / metabolism*
  • Infant
  • Kernicterus / drug therapy
  • Kernicterus / metabolism*
  • Kinetics
  • Liver / metabolism*
  • Male
  • Phenobarbital / therapeutic use*
  • Triiodothyronine
  • Tritium


  • Carbon Isotopes
  • Triiodothyronine
  • Tritium
  • Growth Hormone
  • Bilirubin
  • Phenobarbital