Astrocyte hypertrophy and swelling occur in a variety of pathophysiological conditions, including diseases associated with hyperammonemia. Ammonia is rapidly incorporated into glutamine by glutamine synthetase localized in astrocytes. We tested the hypotheses that (1) 6 h of hyperammonemia (500-600 μM) is adequate for producing astrocyte enlargement, and (2) astrocyte enlargement is attenuated by inhibition of glutamine synthetase with methionine sulfoximine. Pentobarbital-anesthetized rats received an intravenous infusion of either sodium or ammonium acetate after intraperitoneal pretreatment with vehicle, methionine sulfoximine (0.8 mmol/kg) or buthionine sulfoximine (4 mmol/kg), an analogue that does not inhibit glutamine synthetase. Hyperammonemia produced enlarged cortical astrocytes characterized by (1) decreased electron density of cytoplasmic matrix in perikaryon, processes and perivascular endfeet, (2) increased circumference of nuclear membrane, (3) increased numbers of mitochondria and rough and smooth endoplasmic reticulum in perikarya and large processes, and (4) less compact bundles of intermediate filaments. Pretreatment with methionine sulfoximine, but not buthionine sulfoximine, attenuated the decrease in cytoplasmic density and the increase in nuclear circumference; most perivascular endfeet remained as dense as occurred with sodium acetate infusion. However, increased numbers of organelles in expanded perikarya and large processes occurred after methionine sulfoximine treatment with and without ammonium acetate infusion. In separate groups of rats, hyperammonemia produced an increase in cortical tissue water content which was inhibited by methionine sulfoximine, but not buthionine sulfoximine. We conclude that clinically-relevant levels of hyperammonemia can cause astrocyte enlargement within 6 h in vivo characterized by both watery cytoplasm and increased organelles indicative of a cellular metabolic stress and altered astrocyte function. The watery cytoplasm component of astrocyte enlargement depends on glutamine synthesis rather than on ammonium ions per se, and is possibly caused by the osmotic effect accumulated glutamine.
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