Objectives: Plasma tryptophan levels are associated with delirium in critically ill patients. Although tryptophan has been linked to the pathogenesis of other neurocognitive diseases through metabolism to neurotoxins via the kynurenine pathway, a role for kynurenine pathway activity in intensive care unit brain dysfunction (delirium and coma) remains unknown. This study examined the association between kynurenine pathway activity as determined by plasma kynurenine concentrations and kynurenine/tryptophan ratios and presence or absence of acute brain dysfunction (defined as delirium/coma-free days) in intensive care unit patients.
Design, Setting, and Patients: This was a prospective cohort study that utilized patient data and blood samples from the Maximizing Efficacy of Targeted Sedation and Reducing Neurologic Dysfunction trial, which compared sedation with dexmedetomidine vs. lorazepam in mechanically ventilated patients.
Measurements and Main Results: Baseline plasma kynurenine and tryptophan concentrations were measured using high-performance liquid chromatography with or without tandem mass spectrometry. Delirium was assessed daily using the Confusion Assessment Method for the Intensive Care Unit. Linear regression examined associations between kynurenine pathway activity and delirium/coma-free days after adjusting for sedative exposure, age, and severity of illness. Among 84 patients studied, median age was 60 yrs and Acute Physiology and Chronic Health Evaluation II score was 28.5. Elevated plasma kynurenine and kynurenine/tryptophan ratio were both independently associated with significantly fewer delirium/coma-free days (i.e., fewer days without acute brain dysfunction). Specifically, patients with plasma kynurenine or kynurenine/tryptophan ratios at the 75th percentile of our population had an average of 1.8 (95% confidence interval 0.6–3.1) and 2.1 (95% confidence interval 1.0–3.2) fewer delirium/coma-free days than those patients with values at the 25th percentile (p = .006 and p < .001, respectively).
Conclusions: Increased kynurenine pathway activation, assessed by plasma kynurenine and kynurenine/tryptophan ratio, was associated with fewer days alive and without acute brain dysfunction in intensive care unit patients. Future studies are warranted to clarify this relationship and investigate potential therapeutic interventions.