Embolization with polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) is an accepted method of rendering complex arteriovenous malformations (AVM's) more amenable to surgery, but its effects on human vascular tissues have not been adequately documented. The authors reviewed the histopathology of 66 intracranial AVM's resected 1 to 76 days after embolization with PVA. The mean age of the patients was 36 years, and their AVM's were located in the cerebral hemispheres (92%), the cerebellum (6%), or the corpus callosum (2%). In 79% of cases, at least one vessel contained PVA particles; in most cases, the vessel was filled with sharp, angular PVA particles in a serpiginous pattern. Polyvinyl alcohol particles indented the endothelium in 69% of cases but were rarely found subendothelially. Clotted blood and fibroblasts were present among the particles, and abundant intraluminal mononuclear and polymorphonuclear inflammatory cells were found in all vessels containing PVA particles. Foreign-body giant cells appeared 2 to 14 days after embolization in the majority of cases. Patchy mural angionecrosis and necrotizing vasculitis were found in 39% of the cases. Recanalized lumina were seen in 18% of PVA-embolized vessels. Foreign materials resembling cotton fibers and other particulate substances, which were probably contaminants of the contrast solution or the embolic material, were found in 65% of the cases. These findings suggest a specific chain of events in the interaction between PVA and vessel wall components and may explain some important sequelae of embolization therapy.