Increased plasma ammonia levels in patients with advanced cirrhosis have been attributed to reduced conversion of enteric ammonia to urea by the diseased liver and to entry of enteric ammonia into systemic circulation by way of portal-systemic shunts. Because single-pass extraction is high for portal venous ammonia, reduction of portal blood supply to hepatocytes may have detrimental effects on the hepatic extraction of ammonia. To assess how the development of intrahepatic portal-systemic shunts alters hepatic ammonia metabolism, we determined portal and hepatic venous ammonia levels along with measurements of intrahepatic portal-systemic shunts using 99mTc-macroaggregated albumin in 46 patients with portal hypertension. Hepatic venous ammonia levels in the groups of patients with idiopathic portal hypertension, Child class A cirrhosis and Child class B or C cirrhosis were 36 +/- 17, 75 +/- 26 and 93 +/- 52 micrograms/dl, respectively, in increasing order, and portal venous ammonia extraction rates as calculated with the equation (portal venous ammonia-hepatic venous ammonia)/portal venous ammonia x 100% were decreased in the same order (77% +/- 14%, 50% +/- 21%, 40% +/- 25%, respectively). Furthermore, we noted a significant negative correlation between the intrahepatic shunt indexes as calculated by counts per minute in lungs/counts per minute in lungs and liver x 100% and the ammonia extraction rates. It was noteworthy that among Child class C patients, the ammonia extraction rates were significantly lower in patients with high intrahepatic shunt indexes than in those with low shunt indexes. These results demonstrate a significant direct relationship between hepatic ammonia extraction rates and intrahepatic shunting in cirrhosis.