The Belford Center for Spinal Cord Injury, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, USA; Department of Neuroscience, Wexner Medical Center, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, USA. Electronic address: [Email]
The liver is essential for numerous physiological processes, including filtering blood from the intestines, metabolizing fats, proteins, carbohydrates and drugs, and regulating iron storage and release. The liver is also an important immune organ and plays a critical role in response to infection and injury throughout the body. Liver functions are regulated by autonomic parasympathetic innervation from the brainstem and sympathetic innervation from the thoracic spinal cord. Thus, spinal cord injury (SCI) at or above thoracic levels disrupts major regulatory mechanisms for hepatic functions. Work in rodents and humans shows that SCI induces liver pathology, including hepatic inflammation and fat accumulation characteristic of a serious form of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) called non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). This hepatic pathology is associated with and likely contributes to indices of metabolic dysfunction often noted in SCI individuals, such as insulin resistance and hyperlipidemia. These occur at greater rates in the SCI population and can negatively impact health and quality of life. In this review, we will: 1) Discuss acute and chronic changes in human and rodent liver pathology and function after SCI; 2) Describe how these hepatic changes affect systemic inflammation, iron regulation and metabolic dysfunction after SCI; 3) Describe how disruption of the hepatic autonomic nervous system may be a key culprit in post-injury chronic liver pathology; and 4) Preview ongoing and future research that aims to elucidate mechanisms driving liver and metabolic dysfunction after SCI.