Hepatic encephalopathy (HE) is a diverse manifestation of acute and chronic liver failure, ranging from cognitive impairment, only detectable on psychometric evaluation through to confusion, coma and death from cerebral oedema. While there is widespread acceptance of its importance, there is little consensus on how best to diagnose and monitor HE. Clinical descriptions, psychometric testing, electroencephalography and magnetic resonance (MR) imaging (and lately, MR spectroscopy) have all been proposed. MR techniques, in contrast to other modalities, have the benefit of objectivity and of being able to interrogate the brain directly with respect to changes in brain size, function and the metabolic disturbances thought to underlie HE, particularly in the context of astrocyte swelling. Modern clinical MRI scanners with multinuclear MR spectroscopy capabilities and brain mapping software can demonstrate structural and functional cellular changes using volumetric MRI, magnetization transfer MRI, diffusion-weighting MRI, functional MRI with oxygenation measurements and in vivo and in vitro (1)H and (31)P MR spectroscopy. This review describes the relative merits of these techniques and provides guidance on the directions for future research and translation into clinical practice.