Mild hypothermia is effective in the prevention of brain edema associated with cerebral ischemia and traumatic brain injury. Brain edema is also a serious complication of acute liver failure (ALF). To assess the effectiveness of hypothermia in ALF, groups of rats were subjected to hepatic devascularization (portacaval anastomosis, followed 48 hours later by hepatic artery ligation), and body temperatures were maintained at either 35 degrees C (hypothermic) or 37 degrees C (normothermic). Mild hypothermia resulted in a significant delay in the onset of severe encephalopathy and in reduction of brain water content compared with normothermic ALF rats (control [n = 8] 80.22%; ALF-37 degrees C [n = 8] 81.74%; ALF-35 degrees C [n = 8] 80.48% [P <.01 compared with ALF-37 degrees C]). This protective effect was accompanied by a significant reduction of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) (but not plasma) ammonia concentrations (CSF ammonia: control: 0.05 mg/dL; ALF-37 degrees C: 1.01 mg/dL; ALF-35 degrees C: 0.07 mg/dL, P <.01 compared with ALF-37 degrees C). In vivo cerebral microdialysis studies revealed that mild hypothermia resulted in a significant reduction of extracellular glutamate concentrations in the brains of rats with ALF (control: 1. 06 micromol/L; ALF-37 degrees C: 2.74 micromol/L; ALF-35 degrees C: 1.49 micromol/L [P <.01 compared with ALF-37 degrees C]). These findings suggest that: 1) mild hypothermia is an effective approach to the prevention of the central nervous system consequences of experimental ALF; and that 2) the beneficial effect of hypothermia is mediated via mechanisms involving reduced blood-brain transfer of ammonia and/or reduction of extracellular brain glutamate concentrations. Mild hypothermia may be an effective approach to delay the onset of brain edema in patients with ALF awaiting liver transplantation.