Patients with cirrhosis show increased signal intensity in the globus pallidus on T1-weighted magnetic resonance imaging of the brain. This abnormal appearance of the basal ganglia has been related to the severity of liver failure and to the presence of portal-systemic shunting, although its cause and clinical significance remain unknown. We prospectively assessed the metabolic, neurological and neuropsychological statuses of 30 stable cirrhotic patients and correlated these clinical variables with computed measurements of globus pallidus signals. Some metabolic variables denoting disease severity appeared to be significantly related to image changes, although the strongest association was found with plasma ammonia levels. After adjustment for ammonia level, on multiple regression analysis, the other variables were not significant. Furthermore, pallidal changes were associated with specific neurological symptoms and neurological functions, symptoms and functions that also had a significant correlation with ammonia levels. Our findings suggest that globus pallidus signal abnormality could arise as a marker of brain impairment related to hyperammonemia.