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Hepatocerebral degeneration


Hepatocerebral degeneration is a brain disorder that occurs in people with liver damage.

Alternative Names

Chronic acquired (Non-Wilsonian) hepatocerebral degeneration


This condition may occur in any case of acquired liver failure, including severe hepatitis.

Liver damage can lead to the buildup of ammonia and other toxic materials in the body. This happens when the liver does not work properly to break down and eliminate these chemicals. The toxic materials can damage brain tissue.

Specific areas of the brain, such as the basal ganglia, are more likely to be injured from liver failure. The basal ganglia help control movement. This condition is the "Non-Wilsonian" type. This means that the liver damage is not caused by copper deposits in the liver, which is a key feature of Wilson's disease.


Symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty walking
  • Impaired intellectual function
  • Jaundice
  • Muscle spasm (myoclonus)
  • Rigidity
  • Shaking of arms, head (tremor)
  • Twitching
  • Uncontrolled body movements (chorea)
  • Unsteady walking (ataxia)

Exams and Tests

Signs include:

  • Coma
  • Fluid in the abdomen that causes swelling (ascites)
  • Gastrointestinal bleeding from enlarged veins in the food pipe (esophageal varices)

A nervous system (neurological) examination may show signs of:

  • Dementia
  • Involuntary movements
  • Walking instability

Laboratory tests may show a high ammonia level in the bloodstream and abnormal liver function.

Other tests may include:


Treatment helps reduce the toxic chemicals that build up from liver failure. It may include antibiotics or medicines such as lactulose, which lowers the level of ammonia in the blood.

A treatment called branched-chain amino acid therapy may also:

  • Improve symptoms
  • Reverse brain damage

There is no specific treatment for the neurologic syndrome, because it is caused by irreversible liver damage. A liver transplant may cure the liver disease. However, this operation may not reverse the symptoms of brain damage.

Outlook (Prognosis)

This is a long-term (chronic) condition that may lead to irreversible nervous system (neurological) symptoms.

The patient may continue to get worse and may die without a liver transplant. If a transplant is done early in the course of the disease, the neurological syndrome may be reversible.

Possible Complications

Complications include:

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider if you have any symptoms of liver disease.


It is not possible to prevent all forms of liver disease. However, alcoholic and viral hepatitis may be prevented.

To reduce your risk of getting alcoholic or viral hepatitis:

  • Avoid risky behaviors, such as IV drug use or unprotected sex.
  • Don't drink, or drink only in moderation.


Garcia-Tiso G. Cirrhosis and its sequellae. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 156.

Review Date:12/12/2014
Reviewed By:Jenifer K. Lehrer, MD, Department of Gastroenterology, Frankford-Torresdale Hospital, Aria Health System, Philadelphia, PA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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Outcome Data

No data available for this condition/procedure.


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