Infantile spasms are generalized seizures specific to early infancy, and are believed to result from complex cortical-subcortical interactions during a critical period of development. We used positron emission tomography (PET) to determine local cerebral metabolic rates for glucose (1CMRG1c) in 44 infants with spasms, in an attempt to define the neuroanatomical substrates that mediate these seizures. All infants were studied in the awake state during continuous electroencephalographic monitoring. The most consistent abnormality on PET, seen in 32 infants, was the symmetrical increase in 1CMRG1c in the lenticular nuclei, compared to age-matched normal infants (p less than 0.05). In 21 infants, even though the brain stem appeared to be visually more prominent compared to normal infants, statistically significant differences could not be demonstrated. Relative hypermetabolism of the lenticular nuclei (1) occurred irrespective of whether the spasms were cryptogenic or symptomatic, (2) was associated with focal cortical hypometabolism in 22 and focal cortical hypermetabolism in 5 of the 44 infants, and (3) was not characterized by any specific electroencephalographic abnormality during PET. These findings suggest that the lenticular nuclei may contribute to the pathophysiological state that predisposes to infantile spasms, and is consistent with the observation that spasms are clinically symmetrical even when focal cortical lesions are present. A scheme describing the neuronal circuitry likely to be involved in the generation of infantile spasms is proposed.