Mechanisms involved in hepatic encephalopathy still remain to be defined. Nonetheless, it is well recognized that ammonia is a major factor in its pathogenesis, and that the astrocyte represents a major target of its CNS toxicity. In vivo and in vitro studies have shown that ammonia evokes oxidative/nitrosative stress, mitochondrial abnormalities (the mitochondrial permeability transition, MPT) and astrocyte swelling, a major component of the brain edema associated with fulminant hepatic failure. How ammonia brings about these changes in astrocytes is not well understood. It has long been accepted that the conversion of glutamate to glutamine, catalyzed by glutamine synthetase, a cytoplasmic enzyme largely localized to astrocytes in brain, represented the principal means of cerebral ammonia detoxification. Yet, the "benign" aspect of glutamine synthesis has been questioned. This article highlights evidence that, at elevated levels, glutamine is indeed a noxious agent. We also propose a mechanism by which glutamine executes its toxic effects in astrocytes, the "Trojan horse" hypothesis. Much of the newly synthesized glutamine is subsequently metabolized in mitochondria by phosphate-activated glutaminase, yielding glutamate and ammonia. In this manner, glutamine (the Trojan horse) is transported in excess from the cytoplasm to mitochondria serving as a carrier of ammonia. We propose that it is the glutamine-derived ammonia within mitochondria that interferes with mitochondrial function giving rise to excessive production of free radicals and induction of the MPT, two phenomena known to bring about astrocyte dysfunction, including cell swelling. Future therapeutic approaches might include controlling excessive transport of newly synthesized glutamine to mitochondria and its subsequent hydrolysis.
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