Patients with end-stage renal disease (ESRD) undergoing hemodialysis are known to suffer cognitive deficits and stroke of unknown etiology. It has been suspected that the treatment itself may contribute to the syndrome by unknown mechanisms, which we investigated in this study. End-stage renal disease patients on hemodialysis (n=19) or peritoneal dialysis (PD, n=5) were compared with 14 healthy controls. Subjects participated in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) measurements of cerebral atrophy, cerebral blood flow (CBF) arterial spin labeled-MRI (ASL-MRI), quantitative Doppler blood flow through the internal carotid artery, and cerebral oxymetry. The Doppler and oxymetry procedures were also performed at the beginning and end of a single hemodialysis session. End-stage renal disease patients on hemodialysis showed significant cerebral atrophy, associated with longer hemodialysis duration and cognitive deficits, including focal bilateral lesions in the caudate nucleus and midbrain. Cerebral oxygenation was extremely low before dialysis (rSO(2) 41+/-13, compared with 70+/-2 in controls, P<0.02) and improved only slightly after dialysis. Carotid blood flow was also very low at the start of dialysis (115+/-28 mL/sec, versus 193+/-56 in controls, P<0.005) but normalized at the end of the session (181 mL/sec). The PD patients showed intermediate values, between the hemodialysis and controls. Notably, duration of hemodialysis treatment predicted global gray-matter volume (r=-0.74), change of blood flow during dialysis (r=-0.65), and baseline rSO(2) (r=-0.65). The findings suggest that ESRD patients on hemodialysis suffer low CBF during the interdialytic cycle. Coupled with low cerebral oxygenation levels and atherosclerosis, this may contribute significantly to the etiology of the observed cerebral atrophy, cognitive deficits, and high stroke prevalence.