Hepatic encephalopathy is a disorder of brain function as a result of liver failure or portosystemic shunt or both. Both hepatic encephalopathy (clinically overt) and minimal hepatic encephalopathy (not clinically overt) significantly impair patient's quality of life and daily functioning, and represent a significant burden on healthcare resources. Probiotics are live micro-organisms, which when administered in adequate amounts, may confer a health benefit on the host.
To determine the beneficial and harmful effects of probiotics in any dosage, compared with placebo or no intervention, or with any other treatment for people with any grade of acute or chronic hepatic encephalopathy. This review did not consider the primary prophylaxis of hepatic encephalopathy.
We searched The Cochrane Hepato-Biliary Group Controlled Trials Register, CENTRAL, MEDLINE, Embase, Science Citation Index Expanded, conference proceedings, reference lists of included trials, and the World Health Organization International Clinical Trials Registry Platform until June 2016.
We included randomised clinical trials that compared probiotics in any dosage with placebo or no intervention, or with any other treatment in people with hepatic encephalopathy.
We used standard methodological procedures expected by The Cochrane Collaboration. We conducted random-effects model meta-analysis due to obvious heterogeneity of participants and interventions. We defined a P value of 0.05 or less as significant. We expressed dichotomous outcomes as risk ratio (RR) and continuous outcomes as mean difference (MD) with 95% confidence intervals (CI).
We included 21 trials with 1420 participants, of these, 14 were new trials. Fourteen trials compared a probiotic with placebo or no treatment, and seven trials compared a probiotic with lactulose. The trials used a variety of probiotics; the most commonly used group of probiotic was VSL#3, a proprietary name for a group of eight probiotics. Duration of administration ranged from 10 days to 180 days. Eight trials declared their funding source, of which six were independently funded and two were industry funded. The remaining 13 trials did not disclose their funding source. We classified 19 of the 21 trials at high risk of bias.We found no effect on all-cause mortality when probiotics were compared with placebo or no treatment (7 trials; 404 participants; RR 0.58, 95% CI 0.23 to 1.44; low-quality evidence). No-recovery (as measured by incomplete resolution of symptoms) was lower for participants treated with probiotic (10 trials; 574 participants; RR 0.67, 95% CI 0.56 to 0.79; moderate-quality evidence). Adverse events were lower for participants treated with probiotic than with no intervention when considering the development of overt hepatic encephalopathy (10 trials; 585 participants; RR 0.29, 95% CI 0.16 to 0.51; low-quality evidence), but effects on hospitalisation and change of/or withdrawal from treatment were uncertain (hospitalisation: 3 trials, 163 participants; RR 0.67, 95% CI 0.11 to 4.00; very low-quality evidence; change of/or withdrawal from treatment: 9 trials, 551 participants; RR 0.70, 95% CI 0.46 to 1.07; very low-quality evidence). Probiotics may slightly improve quality of life compared with no intervention (3 trials; 115 participants; results not meta-analysed; low-quality evidence). Plasma ammonia concentration was lower for participants treated with probiotic (10 trials; 705 participants; MD -8.29 μmol/L, 95% CI -13.17 to -3.41; low-quality evidence). There were no reports of septicaemia attributable to probiotic in any trial.When probiotics were compared with lactulose, the effects on all-cause mortality were uncertain (2 trials; 200 participants; RR 5.00, 95% CI 0.25 to 102.00; very low-quality evidence); lack of recovery (7 trials; 430 participants; RR 1.01, 95% CI 0.85 to 1.21; very low-quality evidence); adverse events considering the development of overt hepatic encephalopathy (6 trials; 420 participants; RR 1.17, 95% CI 0.63 to 2.17; very low-quality evidence); hospitalisation (1 trial; 80 participants; RR 0.33, 95% CI 0.04 to 3.07; very low-quality evidence); intolerance leading to discontinuation (3 trials; 220 participants; RR 0.35, 95% CI 0.08 to 1.43; very low-quality evidence); change of/or withdrawal from treatment (7 trials; 490 participants; RR 1.27, 95% CI 0.88 to 1.82; very low-quality evidence); quality of life (results not meta-analysed; 1 trial; 69 participants); and plasma ammonia concentration overall (6 trials; 325 participants; MD -2.93 μmol/L, 95% CI -9.36 to 3.50; very low-quality evidence). There were no reports of septicaemia attributable to probiotic in any trial.
The majority of included trials suffered from a high risk of systematic error ('bias') and a high risk of random error ('play of chance'). Accordingly, we consider the evidence to be of low quality. Compared with placebo or no intervention, probiotics probably improve recovery and may lead to improvements in the development of overt hepatic encephalopathy, quality of life, and plasma ammonia concentrations, but probiotics may lead to little or no difference in mortality. Whether probiotics are better than lactulose for hepatic encephalopathy is uncertain because the quality of the available evidence is very low. High-quality randomised clinical trials with standardised outcome collection and data reporting are needed to further clarify the true efficacy of probiotics.