Low visual cortex GABA levels in hepatic encephalopathy: links to blood ammonia, critical flicker frequency, and brain osmolytes


The pathogenesis of hepatic encephalopathy (HE) is not fully understood yet. Hyperammonemia due to liver failure and subsequent disturbance of cerebral osmolytic balance is thought to play a pivotal role in the emergence of HE. The aim of this in-vivo MR spectroscopy study was to investigate the levels of γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and its correlations with clinical symptoms of HE, blood ammonia, critical flicker frequency, and osmolytic levels. Thirty patients with minimal HE or HE1 and 16 age-matched healthy controls underwent graduation of HE according to the West-Haven criteria and including the critical flicker frequency (CFF), neuropsychometric testing and blood testing. Edited proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy ((1)H MRS) was used to non-invasively measure the concentrations of GABA, glutamate (Glu), glutamine (Gln), and myo-inositol (mI) - all normalized to creatine (Cr) - in visual and sensorimotor cortex. GABA/Cr in the visual area was significantly decreased in mHE and HE1 patients and correlated both to the CFF (r = 0.401, P = 0.013) and blood ammonia levels (r = -0.434, P = 0.006). Visual GABA/Cr was also strongly linked to mI/Cr (r = 0.720, P < 0.001) and Gln/Cr (r = -0.699, P < 0.001). No group differences or correlations were found for GABA/Cr in the sensorimotor area. Hepatic encephalopathy is associated with a regional specific decrease of GABA levels in the visual cortex, while no changes were revealed for the sensorimotor cortex. Correlations of visual GABA/Cr with CFF, blood ammonia, and osmolytic regulators mI and Gln indicate that decreased visual GABA levels might contribute to HE symptoms, most likely as a consequence of hyperammonemia.

Metab Brain Dis