What is the role of acute tubular necrosis in the pathophysiology of acute kidney injury (AKI)?

Updated: Dec 24, 2020
  • Author: Biruh T Workeneh, MD, PhD, FASN; Chief Editor: Vecihi Batuman, MD, FASN  more...
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Frank necrosis is not prominent in most human cases of ATN and tends to be patchy. Less obvious injuries include the following (see the image below):

  • Loss of brush borders
  • Flattening of the epithelium
  • Detachment of cells
  • Formation of intratubular casts
  • Dilatation of the lumen
Photomicrograph of a renal biopsy specimen shows r Photomicrograph of a renal biopsy specimen shows renal medulla, which is composed mainly of renal tubules. Features suggesting acute tubular necrosis are the patchy or diffuse denudation of the renal tubular cells with loss of brush border (blue arrows); flattening of the renal tubular cells due to tubular dilation (orange arrows); intratubular cast formation (yellow arrows); and sloughing of cells, which is responsible for the formation of granular casts (red arrow). Finally, intratubular obstruction due to the denuded epithelium and cellular debris is evident (green arrow); note that the denuded tubular epithelial cells clump together because of rearrangement of intercellular adhesion molecules.

Although these changes are observed predominantly in proximal tubules, injury to the distal nephron can also be demonstrated. In addition, the distal nephron may become obstructed by desquamated cells and cellular debris. See the image above.

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