Adam Buckholz, MD MSc, an Assistant Professor at Weill Cornell Medicine specializing in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and cirrhosis research, is unearthing new diagnostic tools that can help detect a major complication, Hepatic Encephalopathy (HE), earlier—helping patients get the treatment they need sooner.
Dr. Buckholz uses WHOOP to study sleep patterns in patients with and without liver disease, looking to further understand the link between changes in sleep and the ability to diagnose this disease in its earlier stages.
Finding Innovative Ways to Detect Covert Disease
While the liver is a resilient organ, after long term damage from stressors such as alcohol, viruses, or NAFLD, it can develop irreversible scarring called cirrhosis. NAFLD is the most common chronic liver disease, and along with the ongoing epidemic of obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol is increasing in the United States.
NAFLD and other liver diseases are often not caught in patients until they progress to cirrhosis, where they are at risk of life threatening complications like HE. HE is caused by high levels of a toxin called ammonia in the bloodstream, which builds up in the brain and causes confusion or even coma.
Patients with early HE, or “covert encephalopathy,” don’t show signs or symptoms until the disease progresses to a more severe—or “overt”—form. This occurs in about 1 of every 5 patients with cirrhosis every year—and once it does, it often recurs and can be life-threatening, with a liver transplant being the only cure.
Typically, patients with covert encephalopathy are only diagnosed through specialized cognitive testing. However, only about 1 in every 10 physicians performs this testing, as it’s a cumbersome process that requires extensive training.
Through his studies, Dr. Buckholz is uncovering a better diagnostic tool for discovering covert encephalopathy, in the hope that patients can receive treatment for their disease in its earlier stages, evaluate their risk levels for disease progression, and be active participants in their own health journeys.