Introduction: Hepatic encephalopathy (HE) is a neuropsychiatric syndrome, a major complication of chronic liver disease (CLD/cirrhosis). The primary cause of hospital admissions for cirrhotic patients is an overt episode of HE. Precipitating factors of HE frequently lead to an increase in blood ammonia. Patients who have experienced multiple episodes of HE are associated with persisting neurological complications post-liver transplantation. Currently, the impact of HE episodes on neurological integrity is unknown. We hypothesize that multiple episodes of HE will accelerate and/or intensify neurological deterioration. To date, an animal model of episodic HE is lacking. Therefore, our goal was to characterize an animal model of episodic HE (precipitated with ammonia) and to evaluate the impact of cumulative episodes on neurological status in cirrhotic rats.
Material and Methods: Animal model of CLD and HE: 6-week bile-duct ligation (BDL) rats, and Sham-operated controls were used. BDL and Sham rats were divided in two groups, episodic and non-episodic. Injection (i.p) of ammonium acetate was used to induce episodes of overt HE (pre-coma; loss of righting reflex) every 4 days starting 3-weeks post-BDL surgery (total 5 episodes). Saline was injected as vehicle for non-episodic groups. Two days following the last HE episode, we assessed motor-coordination (RotaRod), anxiety (elevated plus maze, EPMT), as well as short-term and long-term memory (novel object recognition) in all groups. Upon sacrifice, plasma ammonia was measured.
Results: The concentration of ammonia required to induce an episode of overt HE in BDL rats lessened with each subsequent episode, ranging from 7 to 4.5 mmol/kg. Short-term memory (p<0.05) and motor-coordination (p<0.05) were impaired in both non-episodic and episodic BDL groups compared to respective Sham-operated controls. Long-term memory impairment (p=0.06) and increased anxiety (+60.0%, p<0.05) were exclusively found in episodic BDL rats compared to non-episodic BDL rats. Moreover, there was an increase in blood ammonia (+30.4%, p=0.06) in episodic compared to non-episodic BDL rats, suggesting that although episodic-BDL rats recover from each HE episode, baseline (pre-episode) ammonia remain higher than non-episodic BDL rats.
Conclusion: Cumulative HE episodes escalate neurological impairments in cirrhotic-BDL rats. Thus, this new episodic HE model represents a good approach to explore the pathological mechanism arising from multiple episodes, as well as further investigate whether higher hyperammonemia and/or increased brain sensitivity to ammonia is responsible for more complex neurological manifestations in episodic-BDL rats. Moreover, this model is an excellent platform to investigate novel therapies to prevent/treat episodic HE.