What’s the connection between dialysis and cognitive impairment in patients with chronic kidney disease (CKD)?

Cognitive impairment (CI) is extremely common among dialysis patients affecting  up to ~70% or more  of patients (1-3).   Pre-existing conditions, dialysis process itself and uremic, metabolic and vascular disturbances associated with end stage renal failure may all contribute to the CI in patients on dialysis (1-5).

Among pre-existing conditions, vascular disease is considered the major contributing factor to the risk of CI in dialysis patients (3). The prevalence of stroke is very high among hemodialysis (HD) ( ~15%) and CKD patients (~10%) compared to non-CKD patients (~2%).  History of stroke also doubles the risk of dementia in both the non-CKD and HD patients. Subclinical cerebrovascular disease due to silent strokes and white matter disease —common in CKD and dialysis patients—are also associated with increased risk of cognitive and physical decline and incident dementia.  White matter disease is thought to be related to microvascular disease and chronic hypoperfusion (1).

Dialysis itself may be associated with acute confusional state due to cerebral edema caused by  acute fluid, urea, and electrolyte shifts during dialysis (particularly among newly initiated HD patients).  Some have suggested that the optimal cognitive function in HD patients is around 24 h after HD (1).

Chronic rapid fluctuations in blood pressure, removal of large fluid volumes and hemoconcentrations can further increase the risk of cerebral hypoperfusion, potentially accelerating vascular cognitive impairment in HD patients (1).

 Bonus Pearl: Did you know that while cerebral ischemia (measured by PET-CT or other non-invasive means) is common during HD, it may occur in the absence of intra-dialysis hypotension (6,7)?

Liked this post? Download the app on your smart phone and sign up below to catch future pearls right into your inbox, all for free!

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.



  1. Murray AM. Cognitive impairment in the aging dialysis and chronic kidney disease populations: an occult burden. Adv Chronic Kidney Dis 2008;15:123-32. https://www.ackdjournal.org/article/S1548-5595(08)00011-6/pdf
  2. Murray AM, Tupper DE, Knopman DS, et al. Cognitive impairment in hemodialysis patients is common. Neurology 2006;67:216-223. https://experts.umn.edu/en/publications/cognitive-impairment-in-hemodialysis-patients-is-common
  3. Van Zwieten A, Wong G, Ruospo M, et al. Prevalence and patterns of cognitive impairment in adult hemodialysis patients: the COGNITIVE-HD study. Nephrol Dial Transplant 208;33:1197-1206. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29186522/
  4. Seliger SL, Weiner DE. Cognitive impairment in dialysis patients: focus on the blood vessels? Am J Kidney Dis 2013;61:187-90. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4433757/
  5. Findlay MD, Dawaon J, Dickie DA, et al. Investigating the relationship between cerebral blood flow and cognitive function in hemodialysis patients. J Am Soc Nephrol 30:147-58. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6317612/
  6. Polinder-Bos HA, Garcia DV, Kuipers J, et al. Hemodiaysis induces an acute decline in cerebral blood flow in elderly patients. J Am Soc Nephrol 208;29:1317-25. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5875962/
  7. MacEwen C, Sutherland S, Daly J, et al. Relationship between hypotension and cerebral ischemia during hemodialysis. J Am Soc Nephrol 2017;38:2511-20. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/314298128_Relationship_between_Hypotension_and_Cerebral_Ischemia_during_Hemodialysis

Disclosures: The listed questions and answers are solely the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Catalyst, Harvard University, its affiliate academic healthcare centers, or its contributors. Although every effort has been made to provide accurate information, the author is far from being perfect. The reader is urged to verify the content of the material with other sources as deemed appropriate and exercise clinical judgment in the interpretation and application of the information provided herein. No responsibility for an adverse outcome or guarantees for a favorable clinical result is assumed by the author. Thank you!

What’s the connection between dialysis and cognitive impairment in patients with chronic kidney disease (CKD)?

My hospitalized patient with sepsis has persistently elevated lactic acid despite volume resuscitation, source control, and adequate oxygenation. What could I be missing?

Although the causes of lactic acidosis are legion (eg, sepsis, tissue hypoperfusion, ischemic bowel, malignancy, medications, liver dysfunction), thiamine deficiency (TD) is an often-overlooked cause of persistently elevated serum lactic acid (LA) in critically ill hospitalized patients,1 reported in 20-70% of septic patients.2  Septic shock patients may be particularly at risk of TD because of increased mitochondrial oxidative stress, decreased nutritional intake and presence of comorbid conditions (eg,  alcoholism, persistent vomiting).3

Early recognition of TD in hospitalized patients may be particularly difficult because of the frequent absence of the “classic” signs and symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy (eg, ataxia, cranial nerve palsies and confusion) and lack of readily available confirmatory laboratory tests.4

TD-related lactic acidosis should be suspected when an elevated LA persists despite adequate treatment of its putative cause(s) (4,5). Administration of IV thiamine in this setting may result in rapid clearance of LA.3-5

TD causes lactic acidosis type B which is due to the generation of excess LA, not impairment in tissue oxygenation, as is the case for lactic acidosis type A. Thiamine is an essential co-factor in aerobic metabolism, facilitating the conversion of pyruvate to acetyl-CoA which enters the citric acid (Krebs) cycle within the mitochondria. In TD, pyruvate does not undergo aerobic metabolism and is converted to LA instead, leading to lactic acidosis.

Bonus pearl: Did you know that because of its limited tissue storage, thiamine stores may be depleted within only 3 weeks of reduced oral intake!


  1. O’Donnell K. Lactic acidosis: a lesser known side effect of thiamine deficiency. Practical Gastroenterol March 2017:24.   https://www.practicalgastro.com/article/176921/Lactic-Acidosis-Lesser-Known-Side-Effect-of-Thiamine-Deficiency
  2. Marik PE. Thiamine: an essential component of the metabolic resuscitation protocol. Crit Care Med 2018;46:1869-70. https://journals.lww.com/ccmjournal/Fulltext/2018/11000/Thiamine___An_Essential_Component_of_the_Metabolic.23.aspx
  3. Woolum JA, Abner EL, Kelly A, et al. Effect of thiamine administration on lactate clearance and mortality in patients with septic shock. Crit Care Med 2018;46:1747-52. https://journals.lww.com/ccmjournal/Fulltext/2018/11000/Effect_of_Thiamine_Administration_on_Lactate.5.aspx
  4. Kourouni I, Pirrotta S, Mathew J, et al. Thiamine: an underutilized agent in refractory lactic acidosis. Chest 2016; 150:247A. https://journal.chestnet.org/article/S0012-3692(16)56459-9/pdf
  5. Shah S, Wald E. Type B lactic acidosis secondary to thiamine deficiency in a child with malignancy. Pediatrics 2015; 135:e221-e224. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/135/1/e221

If you like this post, sign up under MENU and get future pearls straight into your mailbox!

My hospitalized patient with sepsis has persistently elevated lactic acid despite volume resuscitation, source control, and adequate oxygenation. What could I be missing?