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BACKGROUND: After proteolysis, the majority of released amino acids from dietary protein are transported to the liver for gluconeogenesis or to peripheral tissues where they are used for protein synthesis and eventually catabolized, producing ammonia as a byproduct. High ammonia levels in the brain are a major contributor to the decreased neural function that occurs in several pathological conditions such as hepatic encephalopathy when liver urea cycle function is compromised. Therefore, it is important to gain a deeper understanding of human ammonia metabolism. The objective of this study was to predict changes in blood ammonia levels resulting from alterations in dietary protein intake, from liver disease, or from partial loss of urea cycle function. METHODS: A simple mathematical model was created using MATLAB SimBiology and data from published studies. Simulations were performed and results analyzed to determine steady state changes in ammonia levels resulting from varying dietary protein intake and varying liver enzyme activity levels to simulate liver disease. As a toxicity reference, viability was measured in SH-SY5Y neuroblastoma cells following differentiation and ammonium chloride treatment. RESULTS: Results from control simulations yielded steady state blood ammonia levels within normal physiological limits. Increasing dietary protein intake by 72% resulted in a 59% increase in blood ammonia levels. Simulations of liver cirrhosis increased blood ammonia levels by 41 to 130% depending upon the level of dietary protein intake. Simulations of heterozygous individuals carrying a loss of function allele of the urea cycle carbamoyl phosphate synthetase I (CPS1) gene resulted in more than a tripling of blood ammonia levels (from roughly 18 to 60 μM depending on dietary protein intake). The viability of differentiated SH-SY5Y cells was decreased by 14% by the addition of a slightly higher amount of ammonium chloride (90 μM). CONCLUSIONS: Data from the model suggest decreasing protein consumption may be one simple strategy to decrease blood ammonia levels and minimize the risk of developing hepatic encephalopathy for many liver disease patients. In addition, the model suggests subjects who are known carriers of disease-causing CPS1 alleles may benefit from monitoring blood ammonia levels and limiting the level of protein intake if ammonia levels are high.

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.