Acute liver failure pathophysiology

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [2] Associate Editor(s)-in-Chief: Aditya Govindavarjhulla, M.B.B.S. [3] Husnain Shaukat, M.D [4]


Acute liver failure is a sudden and severe loss of liver function with evidence of encephalopathy and coagulopathy with elevated prothrombin time (PT) and (INR) in a person without a preexisting liver disease. The consequences of acute liver failure are due to the loss of its metabolic, secretory and regulatory effects. This results in the accumulation of toxic substances and causes deleterious effects. The major pathophysiological mechanisms of morbidity and mortality in patients with acute liver failure are cerebral edema, hypoperfusion to the liver, idiosyncratic drug reactions, depletion of glutathione and viral hepatitis. Cerebral edema in acute liver failure can be due to vasogenic and cytotoxic effects. In cytotoxic type, there is intracellular swelling but blood-brain barrier is intact. In vasogenic type, the blood-brain barrier breaks down and plasma and water accumulate in the extracellular space. The increased ammonia concentration in liver failure in combination with the glutamine produced by the astrocytes causes excess levels of glutamine with the help of enzyme glutamine synthetase. The excess glutamine is cytotoxic and may influence the osmotic gradient which could result in brain edema. In acute liver failure, the increased levels of nitric oxide in the circulation can also disrupt the cerebral autoregulation. Acetaminophen is the leading cause of acute liver failure in the United States. Acetaminophen causes dose-related toxicity. Toxicity is rarely seen at normal therapeutic doses (up to 4 g/day) without underlying liver disease. Viral hepatitis is the leading cause of acute liver failure in the developing world. Hepatitis A, B, D (associated with B), and E (in endemic countries) are commonly associated with acute liver failure.


Acute liver failure is a sudden and severe loss of liver function with evidence of encephalopathy and coagulopathy with elevated prothrombin time (PT) and (INR) in a person without preexisting liver disease.

Specific Conditions

Acetaminophen Toxicity

Other Drugs

Mushroom Poisoning

Viral Hepatitis

Autoimmune Hepatitis

Ischemic Injury

  • This condition is called shock liver. It is a common occurrence in the ICU with a prevalence of 10%.[4]
  • Shock liver results from severe hypotension due to any causes such as heart failure or vasoconstictive drugs.
  • Early recovery frequently occurs, but the long term outcome depends on the underlying cause of the ischemia.

HELLP Syndrome


Gross Pathology

On gross pathology, characteristic findings of acute liver failure include:

Microscopic Pathology

On microscopic pathology, characteristic findings of acute liver failure include:[6]

Drug induced hepatitis
Soource:By Nephron (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons




  1. 1.0 1.1 Ostapowicz G, Fontana RJ, Schiødt FV, Larson A, Davern TJ, Han SH, McCashland TM, Shakil AO, Hay JE, Hynan L, Crippin JS, Blei AT, Samuel G, Reisch J, Lee WM (2002). "Results of a prospective study of acute liver failure at 17 tertiary care centers in the United States". Annals of Internal Medicine. 137 (12): 947–54. PMID 12484709. Retrieved 2012-10-27. Unknown parameter |month= ignored (help)
  2. Catalina MV, Núñez O, Ponferrada A, Menchén L, Matilla A, Clemente G, Bañares R (2003). "[Liver failure due to mushroom poisoning: clinical course and new treatment perspectives]". Gastroenterología Y Hepatología (in Spanish; Castilian). 26 (7): 417–20. PMID 12887855. Retrieved 2012-10-27.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Schiødt FV, Davern TJ, Shakil AO, McGuire B, Samuel G, Lee WM (2003). "Viral hepatitis-related acute liver failure". The American Journal of Gastroenterology. 98 (2): 448–53. doi:10.1111/j.1572-0241.2003.t01-1-07223.x. PMID 12591067. Retrieved 2012-10-27. Unknown parameter |month= ignored (help)
  4. Fuhrmann V, Jäger B, Zubkova A, Drolz A (2010). "Hypoxic hepatitis - epidemiology, pathophysiology and clinical management". Wiener Klinische Wochenschrift. 122 (5–6): 129–39. doi:10.1007/s00508-010-1357-6. PMID 20361374. Retrieved 2012-10-27. Unknown parameter |month= ignored (help)
  5. Woolf GM, Petrovic LM, Rojter SE, Villamil FG, Makowka L, Podesta LG, Sher LS, Memsic L, Vierling JM (1994). "Acute liver failure due to lymphoma. A diagnostic concern when considering liver transplantation". Digestive Diseases and Sciences. 39 (6): 1351–8. PMID 8200270. Unknown parameter |month= ignored (help); |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  6. [1]

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